By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

President Barack Obama signaled his support for stricter auto emissions controls on Monday by directing federal agencies to review plans by California and other states that want to leapfrog federal standards with more stringent ones of their own.

The president also ordered the Transportation Department to quickly issue tighter gas mileage standards, so that automakers can plan for improved, more energy efficient vehicles for the 2011 model year.

On the emissions issue, the Bush Administration had maintained that states could not set independent standards, because regulating greenhouse gas emissions should be handled by national laws. (A bit of a paradox, since the Bush Administration did not support federal greenhouse gas laws either.)

California wants to cut carbon emissions from vehicles by 30 percent by 2016.

Obama’s orders are aimed at mitigating global warming by reducing carbon emissions, both at the tailpipe and through more fuel efficient cars.

Environmentalists hailed the move. “What a thrilling moment to have our new president put his vision into action for a cleaner and safer environment. President Obama’s announcement is a big step in fulfilling his campaign promises for a clean energy economy that will move America beyond oil, create new jobs and reduce global warming pollution,” said Natural Resources Defense Council president Frances Beinecke in a statement.

But automakers responded with misgivings.

Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Auto Alliance, which represents 11 automakers including GM, Ford and Chrysler, issued a statement complaining that domestic car makers answer to two federal authorities on fuel economy – the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration – as well as California (which has previously passed stricter standards).

“Automakers seek a federal-state solution that provides us with compliance clarity and one national standard,” McCurdy said in the statement.

The automakers have a history of fighting stricter emissions and fuel economy standards and have warned that they also don’t want the states creating a patchwork of guidelines that could create an unfair economic burden and complicate marketing and development.

Congress passed stricter gas mileage standards for the industry in late 2007 that would require cars and light trucks to average 35 miles per gallon across a manufacturers fleet by 2020. It is under that framework that the 2011 guidelines will be issued.

The Auto Alliance statement said the industry is “ready to work with the Administration on developing a national approach.”

But it warned that these demands for improved performance come at such a perilous time economically:

“Since CA sought federal permission to set its own fuel economy/CO2 standards, there have been many developments. The U.S. Supreme Court directed EPA to reconsider greenhouse gas regulations for autos, the Congress passed stringent new fuel economy standards requiring CO2 reductions of at least 30% [by 2020]…and the credit crunch is producing the toughest marketplace since World War II.”

The statement also noted that automakers are offering more than 25 models of hybrids for sale in 2009 and that they want the Obama Administration to quickly issue fuel economy guidelines for 2011 so automakers can bake them into their plans.

(See a list of the states wanting to tighten emissions standards.)

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