President Obama ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Monday to re-examine a controversial decision that blocked California and other states, including Maine, from enacting the nation’s stiffest regulations on car emissions.
Critics had accused EPA’s senior leadership of ignoring staff scientists and instead bowing to political pressure from the Bush administration by preventing California from requiring car manufacturers to go beyond federal emissions standards.
More than a dozen other states, including Maine, have moved to adopt identical standards in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
In a rebuke of the Bush administration, Obama said Washington would no longer stand in the way of states.
“The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Obama said. He added: “The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them.”
Maine officials on both sides of the political aisle welcomed Obama’s directive, even if it does not guarantee that the EPA will grant California a waiver.
David Littell, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said requiring that manufacturers sell cleaner, less-polluting cars is good for both consumers and the environment. Littell dismissed statements that the requirements would be onerous or excessively costly to carmakers.
“If [EPA] had approved the California standard, we would have these cars in Maine now, because it started with the 2009 model year,” Littell said.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Obama’s decision may represent a “watershed moment” where the U.S. begins a fundamental overhaul of its national energy policy. And U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, released a statement hailing the decision as “an important step toward energy independence.”
The Clean Air Act gives California special authority to regulate vehicle pollution because the state began regulating such pollution before the federal government got into the act. But a federal waiver is still required. Other states can choose to adopt California’s standards or the federal ones if a waiver is issued.
The EPA has issued several waivers to California in the past to control emissions related to smog. California’s latest proposal was intended to take effect in the 2009 model year, but was never implemented because of EPA delays on the waiver request.
If the current waiver request is approved, automakers would have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016.
Automakers have pushed for a single national standard, arguing California’s waiver request would require production of two types of vehicles and could require dealerships in some states to limit sales of large trucks.
Obama also directed his administration to get moving on new fuel-efficiency guidelines for the auto industry in time to cover 2011 model-year cars.
“For the sake of our security, our economy and our planet, we must have the courage and commitment to change,” Obama said.
“It will be the policy of my administration to reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs,” he said.
Gov. John Baldacci said in a statement that Maine now has “a partner in Washington, D.C., who understands the need to promote clean, renewable energy” and who has outlined what he called a “clear vision for our national energy future.”
Maine has also followed California’s lead in other areas when it comes to vehicle emissions.
Maine adopted California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program, which requires that a certain percentage of the cars sold by a manufacturer in the state be low- or zero-emissions vehicles.
In 2005, 26 percent of the passenger vehicles sold in Maine met the strict “partial zero-emissions vehicle,” or PZEV, standard, according to Lynne Cayting, who handles mobile air pollution sources for the Maine DEP.
PZEV vehicles include hybrids as well as some conventional cars that have ultralow emissions. A “zero emission vehicle,” or ZEV, would be an electric car or one powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
“I really believe we would not have the advanced-technology vehicles that we do without this,” Cayting said of California’s program.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.