A Good Day for the Environment

Matthew Freeman

Jan. 27, 2009

No question about it: A new sheriff’s in town. After eight years of environmental policymaking bent around the convenience of oil companies and other polluting industries, yesterday was like a breath of fresh, clean air. And indeed, clean air is one likely outcome from the Obama Administration’s first few steps on the environment yesterday.


In case you missed it, the first piece big news was that President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Bush EPA’s denial of a waiver to the Clean Air Act requested by California. If granted, the waiver would have allowed – and now could still allow – California to impose stricter automobile emissions standards than the federal government’s. (The Clean Air Act allows states to do so, but only with a waiver from the federal government.) An additional 13 states are set to follow California’s lead, and others are likely to do the same, so if the waiver is granted, about half of the U.S. auto market will be subject to considerably tighter emissions standards. That’d be a big boost for clean air and global warming efforts. (Read more about the waiver on Scientific American’s “60-second science” blog.)


The second piece of environmental news from the White House was that the President has directed the Department of Transportation to ratchet up requirements for fuel efficiency in automobiles sold in the United States. President Bush signed a law raising fuel efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon across each manufacturer’s entire fleet of cars, by 2020. But his Administration never got around to finalizing regulations, therefore requiring nothing new from automakers anytime soon. Yesterday, President Obama directed the Department of Transportation to develop new standards for the 2011 fleet of vehicles – those are the ones on the drawing board now – and to do it in a hurry – by March 30. Look for specifics on increased fuel-efficiency requirements then.


Two other bits of environmental news might have gotten lost in the shuffle yesterday. First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named a special envoy for climate change: Todd Stern, who was the chief U.S. negotiator of the Kyoto Protocol talks during the Clinton Administration. He’s also an alumna of the Center for American Progress, another good sign about what is to come.


Separately, word leaked out in the blogosphere yesterday that Georgetown Law Professor Lisa Heinzerling will take a job at EPA, serving as a climate change advisor to Administrator Lisa Jackson. Heinzerling was the lead author of the plaintiff’s briefs in Massachusetts vs. EPA, the landmark 2007 ruling in which the conservative Supreme Court instructed the Bush EPA that, yes, carbon dioxide was an air pollutant because it contributed to global warming, and that not only was EPA empowered to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, it was required to do so under the Clean Air Act. Heinzerling is an alumnae of the Center for Progressive Reform (that's us, so no link!), so we’re entirely confident she’ll do great things at EPA.


So, tallying up the score from yesterday:  two new and important policies to combat climate change, and two new appointees with distinguished credentials to push U.S. efforts on climate change even further. If he retired tomorrow, President Obama’s environmental legacy would already far outpace President Bush’s. Let’s hope the next few years stay on the same trajectory!

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