When Barack Obama praises California for its “bold and bipartisan leadership” in setting global warming standards for car and truck tailpipes, it’s plain that the Bush Administration is really and truly gone.

California couldn’t take action on its proposed standards, set to go into effect this year, until the Environmental Protection Agency granted it a special waiver—something the agency had done for the state with no controversy as many as 40 times previously. On January 26, Obama ordered the EPA to reconsider its anti-waiver decision—widely believed to have been influenced by White House political intervention. The process requires a comment period and could take several months, but seems all but certain to lead to the granting of the waiver.

“Allowing California and other states to aggressively reduce their own harmful vehicle tailpipe emissions would be a historic win for clean air and for millions of Americans who want more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars,” said California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Sacramento press conference.

The auto industry sued in three states to stop the California law from going into effect, and lost in all three of them. The industry has claimed that only the federal government has the power to set fuel efficiency standards, but the California law is a tailpipe standard that leaves it to the industry how it might reduce emissions.

Now, with its hands out for federal bailout money and Obama in office, the auto industry appears more ready to compromise. According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group, “We are ready to work with the Administration on developing a national approach.”

If Obama’s EPA develops an effective 50-state greenhouse gas program for cars and trucks, California (and the 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, that follow its lead) would presumably not need their own approach.

“We look forward to contributing to a comprehensive policy discussion that takes into account the development pace of new technologies, alternative fuels and market and economic factors,” said General Motors’ Greg Martin.  

The industry may be hoping that the emerging federal standard will be weaker than the law California passed, but with an energized EPA and solidly Democratic Congress this may not be the case. So it could end up calling in the lawyers all over again.

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