Obama Proposes Strict Vehicle Emissions Limits

The president's proposal would require vehicles to get 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

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For the first time, the government will enact a national limitation on car emissions, President Barack Obama announced today. And those limits will be strict. He's proposing a plan that would require that vehicles get an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, from the current regulation of 27.5 miles per gallon—resulting in a 30 percent drop in vehicles' carbon emissions.

Calling current rules on vehicle efficiency "inadequate, uncertain, and in flux," Obama highlighted the piecemeal nature of current policy, in which the Environmental Protection Agency sets one standard, the Department of Transportation sets another, and California and 13 other states have attempted to set a third. "The goal is to set one national standard that will increase fuel efficiency," Obama said.

The move has a number of implications that go beyond the environment. First, it puts to rest the thorny issue of states' rights over limiting vehicle emissions—and makes good on Obama's promise to California to reconsider the state's application to set its own fuel-efficiency standards. Under the Bush administration, California and 13 other states applied for the right to regulate carbon dioxide emissions more strictly than national regulations, slashing them by 30 percent by 2016. The EPA declined their application. In his first week of office, Obama ordered the EPA to reconsider its ruling. But now that he's enforcing a national rule with the same end result—the only difference is that Obama's program starts more gradually, allowing automakers more time to adjust—California will drop its application.

Car manufacturers had been fighting the California waiver. Like the EPA, they argued that it would make laws too patchy across the nation. That would make it difficult for them to know how to develop their models. The flip side, of course, is that they now have to cut vehicle emissions by 5 percent each year from 2012 to 2016. Still, they seem to be behind the proposal, with major auto industry executives standing alongside the president as he made his speech in the Rose Garden today.

Environmental advocates, however, are the most pleased. Some were worried after Obama's March announcement that fuel economy standards for 2011 would be increased to 27.3 miles per gallon, 8 percent higher than the requirements for 2010. As the Bush administration had backed a proposal that was slightly more ambitious than Obama's announcement, some wondered if Obama would be less bold on carbon emissions than they had thought.

But those worries seem to have been put aside with these rules, which are the most ambitious ever attempted. Although Congress had mandated that automakers reach 35 miles per gallon by 2020, this policy would mean they reach that goal four years earlier. It will reduce oil consumption by 1.8 billion barrels, Obama said, which is equivalent to taking 58 million cars off the road for one year. And it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 900 million metric tons.

"While the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world's population, we create roughly a quarter of the world's demand for oil," Obama said today. "Ending this dependence will take time." But these regulations, he said, will be a crucial first step.