Switcheroo

December 21, 2007

As he signed into law legislation requiring the first increase in fuel-efficiency standards in three decades, President Bush waxed on so enthusiastically Wednesday about federal mandates to curb the greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate warming he sounded like a convert to the cause.

Alas, it was a feint. Within hours, the Bush administration used the new fuel-efficiency standards as an excuse to deny California, Maryland and more than a dozen other states the authority to set limits on tailpipe emissions. Clearly, Mr. Bush's friends in the automobile industry, who lost this year their long battle with Congress over updating the gas hogs, decided a modest federal mileage increase is preferable to allowing states to regulate pollutants produced by burning gasoline, particularly carbon dioxide.

Gov. Martin O'Malley was among the state leaders who quite rightly announced their intention to challenge the decision in court. But this is a needless waste of time when there's no time left to lose to try to reverse global warming trends causing great damage and threatening much more.

Further, the courts have already taken the Bush administration to task for failing to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, which prompted states such as Maryland to step into the vacuum.

Stephen L. Johnson, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, had been pondering a 2-year-old request from California for a waiver allowing the state to set its own CO2 limits on emissions from vehicles. He denied the request shortly after the bill signing Wednesday, saying the fuel-efficiency legislation rendered the waiver unnecessary.

He made the sensible argument that one federal standard is preferable to a patchwork of state laws. But there is no federal limit on CO2 emissions from cars and trucks. Fuel-efficiency standards are expected to have the effect of curbing pollution, but they are not the same as limits on specific pollutants.

Further undercutting Mr. Johnson's lame rationale is that the 17 states where "clean cars" laws are either on the books or under consideration represent half the U.S. population. That's one big patch. Carmakers could easily design their vehicles to meet the California/Maryland standards, and sell them in states with less-stringent requirements as well.

Apparently, it was too much to hope that Mr. Bush would share one positive, widely praised accomplishment with the Democratic Congress without cheapening it.

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