Obama Orders Sharp Tightening of Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

This morning, as expected, President Obama told the Transportation Department to draft implementing rules, pursuant to 2007 legislation, calling for a 40 percent improvement in automotive fuel efficiency by 2020. Even more importantly, he instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to act on an application by California and 13 other states to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks (including, notably, SUVs). That decision reverses Bush Administration policy and comes the same day Lisa Jackson was sworn in as new EPA Administrator.

If EPA gives California the go-ahead to set its preferred standards, the effect could be to increase the average required fuel efficiency of cars and trucks to 35 mph from 27 mph now, by 2016. Thatâ''s four years faster than the Federal government proposes to have the industry achieve that efficiency, and itâ''s a technically challenging goal. To put it in a personal perspective, my own Mini Cooper, which is one of the smallest vehicles on the road in the United States, gets only 37 mph under optimal conditions and on average no better than 32 mph. The Mini is in some respects a high-performance sports car cleverly disguised as just a cute family sedan, to be sure; but taking Americansâ'' historical preferences into account and the ways the U.S. auto industry has sought to satisfy them, the new rules will represent a radical shift.

How much is the industry at fault for current problems, and how much public support does it deserve to get, as it retools? In a February Scientific American column, Columbia Universityâ''s Jeffrey Sachs argues that four fundamental points deserve more emphasis; two seem noteworthy. â''The automakersâ'' plight is the result of the dramatic collapse of all domestic vehicle sales rather than the U.Sâ''s declining share of those sales,â'' writes Sachs, and â''the public and political leadership bear huge co-responsibility with industry for the misguided SUV era.â''

Sachs argues that a new public-private partnership will be vital to reviving and reorienting the U.S. automobile industry. He points out that in recent years, the Federal government has spent about as much on energy r&d each year as the Pentagon has spent in two days.

NOTE: EPA Administrator Jackson came under some fire for her environmental record in New Jersey, especially from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. But efforts by a few Republicans to stall her confirmation appear to have been pro forma.

SEPARATELY: the Atlantic Monthlyâ''s Marc Ambinder reported in his blog earlier today that Obama would appoint Washington lawyer and climate change expert Todd Stern as his chief envoy on global climate change, with the title Under Secretary of State. Stern most recently worked as a senior deputy to John Podesta at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

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