On Monday, President Obama did something that was often the last thing on his predecessor’s mind: He took the advice of his experts on an environmental issue.

Obama cleared the way for California, New York and 12 other states to set vehicle emission standards tougher than their federal counterparts. Both scientists and policymakers had been nearly unanimous in recommending this course of action to the Bush administration but they resisted, fearing that anything less than a uniform federal standard couldn’t be enforced.

Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington joined in on the protracted effort to clamp down on tailpipe emissions. The fact that these 14 states represent more than one-third of the potential U.S. vehicle market will likely tow the automakers toward the goals they’ve also been resisting: reduced emissions and less global warming impact.

Leading the way is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former action-hero and bodybuilder may be dismissively called the Governator, or Conan the Republican, but Schwarzenegger has taken California’s environmental concern and economic might and solidified the state’s role as an eco-pioneer. The auto industry, mired by its own denial into a financial death spiral, may be forced into an intervention to get it back on the right track to environmental and economic security. California’s proposal would roll back emissions levels by 30 percent over the next seven years.

What struck me as most odd about this is that there’s a history of defaulting to the states to weaken, not strengthen, environmental laws. From the earliest days of the Reagan administration, EPA enforcement budgets for the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were slashed, forcing state regulators with bare-bones resources to fend for themselves. In his first term, Reagan had cut the EPA’s staff by 29 percent, and its operating budget by 44 percent, with a corresponding drop in enforcement of pollution laws. States that were underfunded from the start couldn’t possibly pick up the slack.

The George W. Bush team amplified this plan, leaving state agencies already trimmed by post 9/11 security needs virtually helpless. Rust Belt states promised industries that they’d back off on environmental laws, for fear they’d lose factories to the Sun Belt. Then the Sun Belt states eased off even more, fearing they’d lose business to India or Mexico.

Obama has come back in at the retail level, giving the nod to states to up the ante, rather than cash in their chips. Monday’s announcement also signaled the beginning of the end of Obama’s inaugural honeymoon. A spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner accused the president of kicking the automakers when they’re down. Many Midwestern Democrats are also not on board with the president. Coal and car-making states feel they have much to lose by a revision of our energy policy.

Take another look at the list of 14 states above: With the exceptions of Arizona and New Mexico, they’re all near a coastline. Then take a look at Obama’s energy and climate team: DOE Secretary Steven Chu from California; Climate Czar Carol Browner of Florida; EPA Boss Lisa Jackson from New Jersey; Harvard’s John Holdren as Science Advisor; Oregon State’s Jane Lubchenco running NOAA; LA’s Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley as top environmental advisor. In between the two coasts, there’s a struggling economy tied to coal, steel, cars, ethanol, oil and gas.

Whether it’s a return to states’ rights, or a War Between the States, is yet to be seen. 


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)  

Political Habitat: Emission, impossible?
Obama steals a play from the Reagan/Bush playbook, and hopes for the opposite result.