Rethinking clean cars

Our view : A willingness to let California, Maryland and others regulate tailpipe emissions demonstrates President Obama's new approach to energy - and to scientific evidence

January 27, 2009

The winds of change brought to Washington by the nation's new chief executive may be clearing the air in more ways than one. President Barack Obama yesterday asked federal regulators to re-examine past decisions regarding vehicle tailpipe emissions and fuel efficiency standards that could lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gases and less dependence on foreign oil.

Mr. Obama had promised a greener - and smarter - energy future during his presidential campaign, and reversing course on these policy missteps of the past represents a major move in that direction. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's failure to permit California and 13 other states, including Maryland, to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars was among the more egregious examples of the science-averse Bush administration putting corporate profits ahead of public interest.

Some in the U.S. auto industry will no doubt whine that the last thing a struggling industry needs is the possibility of a patchwork quilt of state regulations. But that's not really what the U.S. faces. If the EPA chooses to reverse course, California standards will quickly become the nation's de facto rules regarding tailpipe emissions - as they've been in the past.

Furthermore, the alternative possibility that $17.4 billion in taxpayer bailout money would be used to underwrite a business-as-usual approach to climate change by Detroit was unacceptable. Had the beleaguered industry not been so resistant to government-mandated higher emissions and fuel efficiency standards years ago, automakers would today be far better positioned to make cars consumers want to buy.

Despite current sub-$2-a-gallon gasoline prices, Americans should not lose sight of the need to reduce the nation's dependence on oil - not just because of the national security and economic implications (although they are considerable), but because the burning of fossil fuels, whether by cars or power plants, is putting the planet deeper in peril on a daily basis.

We can no longer bury our collective heads in the sand and ignore what science has made plain. The last administration's rejection of scientific evidence had become such a common occurrence that new EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson felt compelled to write to her employees last week informing them that henceforth "science must be the backbone for EPA programs" and also that "the EPA must follow the rule of law."

How remarkable that either notion needed to be expressed, but clearly they did. President Obama's willingness to allow states to regulate air quality or for the U.S. Department of Transportation to formalize fuel efficiency guidelines is nothing extraordinary - it only seems so after the Bush know-nothingness era.

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