President Barack Obama ordered the government Monday to re-examine whether California and other states should be allowed to have tougher auto emission standards, a clean break from Bush administration policy.
Jumping into the seemingly never-ending national energy debate, Obama also directed his administration to get moving on new fuel-efficiency guidelines for the auto industry in time to cover 2011 model-year cars.
"For the sake of our security, our economy and our planet, we must have the courage and commitment to change," Obama said in his first formal event in the ornate East Room of the White House.
"It will be the policy of my administration," he said, "to reverse our dependence on foreign oil while building a new energy economy that will create millions of jobs."
California and at least a dozen other states have tried to come up with tougher emission standards than those imposed by the federal government, but Obama said that "Washington stood in their way."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised Obama's move.
"With this announcement from President Obama less than a week into his administration, it is clear that California and the environment now have a strong ally in the White House," Schwarzenegger said in a prepared statement. "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.
"My administration has been fighting for this waiver since 2005 and we will not give up until it is granted because we owe it to our children and to our grandchildren to do more than just protect our natural resources," Schwarzenegger added.
The president wants the Environmental Protection Agency to take a second look at a decision denying California -- and the other states that want to follow its model -- permission to set its own tailpipe emission standards.
More broadly, Obama sought to show he was not waiting to put his stamp on energy policy, which has both near-term implications on the sagging economy and long-range effects on pollution, climate change and national security.
"Year after year, decade after decade, we've chosen delay over decisive action," Obama said. "Rigid ideology has overruled sound science. Special interests have overshadowed common sense. Rhetoric has not led to the hard work needed to achieve results -- and our leaders raise their voices each time there's a spike on gas prices, only to grow quiet when the price falls at the pump."
The Clean Air Act gives California special authority to regulate vehicle pollution because the state began regulating such pollution before the federal government got into the act. But a federal waiver is still required; if the waiver is granted, other states can choose to adopt California's standards or the federal ones.
In 2007 the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency denied California's waiver request, gaining praise from the auto industry but touching off a storm of investigations and lawsuits from Democrats and environmental groups who contended the denial was based on political instead of scientific reasons.
Obama on Monday directed the EPA to re-examine the decision. That does not yet overturn anything. But still, the states' wanting their own power considered it a victory.
"The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Obama said. He added: "The days of Washington dragging its heels are over. My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them."