Obama continues to prove he’s not Bush

President Obama is not shy about breaking with the policies of his predecessor. He ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider whether California and 13 other states can mandate tough, new auto-emissions standards, tougher than the federal standards.

He didn’t directly order the EPA to do so, but a savvy regulator can sense which way the wind is blowing on this one. To underscore his stand on the environment and greenhouse gases, Obama made the announcement in the formal surroundings of the White House East Room.

The Clean Air law allows California to seek special permission to impose its own auto-pollution and fuel-efficiency standards because it began regulating them before the federal government. The waivers were almost routinely granted until 2007, when the Bush administration EPA rejected a California plan to order automakers to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and trucks by 2016.

The automakers sued to block the regulations when they were first passed and will surely sue again when the waiver is granted. The Bush-era EPA argued that the waiver became unneeded because the president had just signed a law requiring new cars and trucks to average 35 miles per gallon, up from the current 27.5, by 2020, but the Bush administration never took steps to implement the law. Obama has now ordered the EPA to set new fuel-efficiency standards beginning in 2011.

The Bush administration muddied the regulatory waters by its propensity to listen to its political appointees rather than to career scientists and regulators. And the auto industry tends to cry wolf on all regulation.

But the auto industry has a point when it says these regulations could force it to serve two separate car markets and that the country and the industry would be best served by a single national standard. But that’s in effect what we might be getting because California and the 13 other states, among them New York and Pennsylvania, and three additional states considering doing likewise account for more than half the vehicles sold in the United States.

And with two-thirds of the Big Three in dire financial straits, the regulators should take seriously the automakers’ concerns about costs. Obama boasts that his energy policies "will create millions of new jobs." Not if a major automaker goes belly-up.