WASHINGTON - -The Obama administration will unveil rules Tuesday that will require vast reductions in vehicle greenhouse gas emissions and gas mileage improvements over the next seven years, changes that will mark a potentially pivotal shift in the battle over global warming.
After decades of political sparring, legal challenges and scientific arguments over climate change, three of the central players - the federal government, major U.S. car makers, and the state of California - have essentially concluded that the time has come to suspend hostilities and make a deal.
The breakthrough on cars and trucks comes at a time when the outlines of a similar agreement are emerging on the other great source of the greenhouse gases that scientists blame for global warming: the burning of coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity and run industrial plants.
For cars and trucks, Tuesday's agreement establishes a single, nationwide standard that would require a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles sold in the United States by 2016.
The new emissions limits are projected to reduce U.S. oil consumption by 1.8 billion barrels total from 2011 through 2016. That would be about a five percent annual cut in the current U.S consumption rate of 7.1 billion barrels a year.
For its part, California will essentially accept the national standard as a substitute for the state's own, already tough emissions requirements. The Obama standard is designed to achieve the same level of emissions cutbacks as the California rule, though automakers will be given more time to adapt.
Completing the three-way deal, automakers will pledge to drop their effort to block the California rules through legal challenges.
"Everybody wins," said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "It's going to cut carbon pollution. The drivers of these cars are going to save money at the pump. It's going to cut our national oil dependence ... [and] if you're going to prosper as a car maker, when the economy recovers, you have to be making these clean, high-mileage vehicles."
A White House official, briefing reporters Monday night on condition of anonymity, said the agreement will push the average new vehicle sold in the U.S. to 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016, up from 25 mpg today. It will set standards fleetwide and by vehicle class; the administration projects the average new car will get 39 mpg in 2016, and the average light truck, 30 mpg.
The agreement, coupled with increased fuel-efficiency requirements that Congress approved in 2007, will add $1,300 to the price of a new car in 2016, the administration estimated.
"You can continue to buy whatever cars you want," the official said. "All cars get cleaner."
Neither the Obama plan nor the rules California has sought to adopt explicit mileage requirements. But by capping the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists blame for global warming, they would effectively require vehicles to achieve better mileage.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of California and others will join Obama for Tuesday's announcement.
In embracing a deal, the parties appear to have concluded that some kind of action on greenhouses gases was inevitable and that their separate interests were better served by compromising now than by delaying the process further.
For U.S. automakers, already adrift in a sea of financial troubles, being forced to meet California standards was essentially the same as having a national rule, since the state accounts for such a large share of vehicle sales and it was considered impractical to manufacture different cars and trucks for different market segments.
Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said "What's significant about the announcement is it launches a new beginning, an era of cooperation."
"The debate over who sets CO2 and fuel-economy standards for autos has been decided, but there is still more to talk about," he added. "We have the broad outlines of an agreement," McCurdy said but the auto industry must still work out important details with the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal bodies, as well as with California officials.
Not everyone hailed the agreement.
"We think these new mandatory fuel standards are most unfortunate," said Myron Ebell, an energy expert with the pro-market Competitive Enterprise Institute. "They will price people out of larger vehicles and force them into smaller vehicles. Smaller cars may use less fuel, but they don't meet the needs of many people and studies show they are less safe." And at least one veteran of the Bush administration saw Obama's deal as a vindication of his predecessor.
"It looks like the Obama administration is agreeing with the Bush administration that there needs to be a national standard and that it doesn't make any sense to have multiple state standards," said Jeff Holmstead, a former senior EPA official.