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Obama Allows California to Adopt Car Emission Standards - New Day for State Regulatory Authority

In a positive step forward for federal respect for state regulatory powers, President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reconsider a previously denied waiver to allow California to implement auto emissions and fuel efficiency requirements that go beyond the current federal standards.  In a statement by the White House, President Obama said "the federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."  The directive represents not only greater respect for state authority, but also a sharp break from the previous administrations climate policies. 

If granted a waiver by the EPA, California's proposed regulations would result in an average reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of about 22% by 2012 and about 30% by 2016 for new cars and light trucks in the state. The Federal Clean Air Act gives California a special right to apply for a federal waiver that allows the state to implement vehicle emission standards that are tougher than those of the federal government. Although in the past waivers have been readily granted, California tried for most of the Bush presidency to obtain a federal waiver to no avail.  


If California is granted a waiver to impose higher standards than the federal government does, other states may choose to adopt California's more stringent standards.  According to the New America Foundation, to date, 17 other states (Arizona, ConnecticutMaineMarylandMassachusettsNew MexicoNew JerseyNew YorkOregonPennsylvaniaRhode IslandVermont, and Washington) "have adopted or have announced plans to adopt" California's standards.   Other states such as ColoradoMinnesotaMontanaNorth Carolina, and Utah are currently considering proposals regarding the adoption of California standards.

More broadly, the clean cars decision by President Obama indicates a commitment to a far more collaborative federalism between the federal governments and states than in the past, opening the door for a system where the federal government may impose minimum regulatory requirements but will allow states to seek to establish higher standards within their own jurisdictions.