President Bush did not win over any converts to his energy strategy, with Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups calling his announcement on fuel economy and greenhouse gases as more stalling.
Prodded by a recent Supreme Court ruling, Bush said Monday his administration will decide how to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles by the time he leaves office.
Bush signed an executive order directing federal agencies to craft regulations that will "cut gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles." He ordered the agencies — the departments of Transportation, Agriculture and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency — to have the rules in place by the end of 2008.
The Supreme Court in April changed the landscape in a landmark 5-4 ruling that found the EPA must reconsider its 2003 refusal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from new cars and trucks. The court said the EPA must regulate carbon dioxide if it finds that it endangers public health.
"The president has responded to the Supreme Court's landmark decision by calling on EPA ... to move forward and take the first regulatory step to craft a proposal to control greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles," EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson told reporters.
Johnson said a draft proposal should be ready by fall, and that it will include a finding on whether carbon dioxide is a health threat. He suggested there could be no regulation if no threat is found, or if the agency determines there is "some other reason and rational explanation for why it was not necessary to regulate."
But the 2008 timeframe led critics to accuse Bush of stalling.
"The president asked his agency heads to share ideas and come up with a plan that is due three weeks before he leaves office," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.
Environmental groups said the administration's plan lacks any clear commitment to act.
"They haven't promised anything specific here — just trust us," said David Doniger, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There is nothing to rely on here."
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, agreed that Bush's order was short of details. "The absence of any standards in (the) announcement is a reason why Americans will be looking to Congress for stronger leadership on energy policy," he said.
No change on mandatory caps
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the president's position opposing mandatory emissions caps has not changed. While recognizing that greenhouse gases are a serious contributor to climate change, Bush has said that anything other than a voluntary approach would unduly harm the nation's economy.
"The question is: do you try to set up a mandatory system or do you try to set up an innovation-based system?" Snow said. "The president prefers innovation."
But the Democratic-controlled Congress is considering a number of bills that would impose a cap on emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading gas linked to global warming, and a carbon trade system.
"It appears that the president wants to run out the clock to the end of his term without addressing our energy needs," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Bush said that, in writing any rules, agency officials must take into account the views of the general public, scientific knowledge, available technology, the cost and the impact the new rules would have on safety.
Bush and administration officials said the process will take time because it is so complicated. Johnson indicated that — at the least — the new rules could implement the president's plan for reducing gas consumption by 20 percent over 10 years.
Competing plans for mileage standards
As announced in Bush's State of the Union address in January, this plan envisions increasing the country's use of alternative fuels to 35 billion gallons by 2017. It also would give the administration the ability to rewrite mileage rules for passenger cars, which now must meet a two-decades-old fleet average of 27.5 mpg, so that they are based on a vehicle's size.
Bush says this is a safe way to boost car mileage, but critics say it could spur the production of more gas guzzlers. It is less ambitious than a bill approved earlier this month in a Senate committee, which would raise the nationwide fleet fuel economy to an average of 35 mpg by 2020, and others being drafted in the House.
Johnson said that since the Supreme Court decision gave the EPA "significant latitude" as to how to comply with its regulatory obligations, the administration interprets that as the authority to implement Bush's proposal without congressional approval.
However, he stressed that legislation to Bush's liking is preferable.
Congress is moving forward with its own fuel economy legislation. A Senate bill would set a 35 mpg standard by 2020, and a similar bill is expected soon in the House of Representatives.