Cleaner Cars -- The Race to the Top?

Just a short time ago, the nation's biggest automakers - including General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler - had Washington tied up in knots and California bent around the axle.  But last week President Obama put the nation on a new path towards cleaner, more efficient cars. 

  • The president directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take a fresh look at giving California the green light for its landmark global warming pollution standards - standards already adopted by 13 other states.  The Bush administration had blocked California last year by denying a normally-routine Clean Air Act waiver.
  • President Obama also told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) to set new federal fuel economy standards.  The Bush administration had proposed weak standards last year, but left them for its successor to finish.  All signs are that the new president now will strengthen them. 
  • And very soon, the new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, is expected to make the long-delayed official pronouncement that CO2 and other heat-trapping pollutants are bad for our climate, our health, and our environment - called an "endangerment" determination.  Two years ago, in a historic case called Massachusetts v. EPA, the Supreme Court ordered the Bush administration to face up to the science, but EPA did nothing.  Obama's EPA will then follow up with federal standards for global warming emissions from cars (as well as power plants and other industries).   

The new administration understands that higher pollution and mileage standards will help curb global warming, cut our dangerous dependence on oil, save consumers billions at the pump, and help the domestic auto industry recover. 

As I said in a recent New York Times story:  "If carmakers are going to survive in a world of volatile oil prices and global warming, they have to be making more efficient vehicles. When the economy comes back and people start buying cars again, they're going to expect that gas prices are going to go up, and they're not going to want the gas hogs that they used to want. Consumers' tastes have changed in terms of what's cool."

Some outside the auto industry still cry doom and gloom.  In the same article one pundit claimed the California standards "would basically kill the industry."  

But Dave McCurdy, head of the industry's Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, struck a more moderate note:

The Alliance supports a nationwide program that bridges state and federal concerns and moves all stakeholders forward, and we are ready to work with the Administration on developing a national approach. . . . Automakers seek a federal-state solution that provides us with compliance clarity and one national standard.

The automakers seem to have realized that they cannot wish California and the Clean Air Act away and go back to the days when NHTSA was on the industry's leash.  But there may be a way to provide the higher standards we need and also meet the auto industry's desire for planning certainty and practical uniformity.  What we need is a formula that:

  • Maintains California's historical leadership.  California needs to continue to play the pioneering role it has had for more than 40 years, setting emission standards that pull forward new technologies.
  • Takes California's progress nationwide.  We also need federal greenhouse gas and mileage standards that apply all across the country and deliver emission reductions at least equal to California's standards.

Will the auto industry agree to these goals?  If so, we should be able to find a pathway forward that works for everyone.