According to The New York Times, President Obama will announce a series of environmental policy decisions this week. These steps include granting waivers to states that want to implement their own emissions standards, directing federal agencies to find ways to be more fuel-efficient and having the Department of Transportation draft and finalize regulations to increase efficiency standards in line with the congressionally mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.
On the surface, it's a big move by Obama to undo the damage we're doing to the environment. The timing, in the early days of the administration while the president is working on his stimulus package, seems dramatic. Look, it's important! It's like taking a girl to see your parents on the third date — when, in reality, you're just low on funds and the parents agreed to pay for dinner so it saves you money you can use on books for your Psych 301 class.
By denying California a waiver to set its own emissions standards, the Bush administration took the pressure off itself to write the regulations for the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Obama is essentially reversing these stands, by reconsidering the waiver and instructing the Department of Transportation to write the regulations needed to get the automakers to comply with the standards set forth in EISA.
As both are executive actions, requiring no significant legislative input, Obama wastes almost no political capital and wins big with environmentalists. Additionally, the pressure it puts on automakers is greatly over-exaggerated. There won't be a great movement of states wanting their own waivers; they’ll either follow the federal standards or adopt the California standards. And to those who say it's unfair to have the California standard and the federal standard, the administration can point out this already is what's happening.
This gives Obama cover when the administration does finally write the regulations for automakers. If the regulations turn out to be stricter, more similar to the California standards they're going to grant, President Obama can say that, by merging standards for two plans with essentially the same goals (the California requirements mandate emissions limits; the EISA mandates CAFE mileage goals, but the end result is similar) they're essentially creating one large standard. I'm not sure if that's where the administration is going with this, but it should.
Most importantly, it's not like the automakers can complain. They're on the dole, and President Obama has repeatedly said he's going to save them, so who is going to raise a fuss? The new administration is going to get a lot of credit for doing the bare minimum any Democratic president should do and lose nothing for it. It's a sign the new crew in the West Wing gets the politics.
Let's just hope they don't rest on their laurels by being better than the last group and actually make meaningful changes, like tackling the demand side of the equation and raising the gas tax.