White House: Blocking climate rules would hurt Detroit automakers

That would leave automakers facing a mix of state regulations because California and other states that follow its lead would move ahead with adopting California’s emissions rules, the White House is emphasizing.

“If that program were not to go forward, California still has all its authorities, so rather than having one national standard, we would revert to a situation where we have different states doing different things, and Detroit having a whole mess in terms of what kind of cars they are expected to make and then sell across the country,” White House climate and energy czar Carol Browner said Tuesday morning at an energy conference in Washington, DC.

The White House is battling a plan by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to bring a resolution to the floor that would overturn EPA’s “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases threaten humans. Her resolution – which could not be filibustered – currently has 40 cosponsors, including three Democrats.

The endangerment finding is allowing EPA to move ahead with planned rules for stationary sources that Murkowski and her allies say would impose costly burdens. But it’s also the legal underpinning for the looming federal automobile efficiency and emissions rules.

Blocking the finding could unravel a 2009 deal on auto emissions struck by the Obama administration, automakers and states that will enable the national mileage and emissions rule.

Under the plan, which will be finalized next month, the Transportation Department (DoT) and EPA will issue joint mileage and emissions standards for model years 2012-2016. The mileage standards reach 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016.

As part of the deal, California and the roughly dozen states that had planned to impose California’s auto emissions rules are instead deferring to the federal program.

But if the endangerment finding goes away, so does that single nationwide auto standard. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, echoing Browner, made that point in a letter to eight Senate Democrats Monday that criticizes Murkowski’s plan. Jackson wrote that Murkowski's plan would leave the auto industry “without the explicit nationwide uniformity that it has described as important to its business."

Murkowski on Tuesday defended her resolution, which she plans to bring to the floor as soon as next month. She says she’s not aiming at the auto standards with her plan to block EPA’s authority – it’s the stationary source rules that worry Murkowski.

“It has never been our intention to pull back on the mobile sources,” Murkowski said Tuesday.

She told reporters that the DoT auto mileage standards could remain intact under her plan. And indeed automakers will meet the carbon dioxide limits in the joint EPA-DoT rule by manufacturing more efficient cars, which they’re forced to do anyway under the tougher mileage standards.

But automakers are also fighting Murkowski’s plan, said a lobbyist for a major manufacturer, because it opens the door for the patchwork of state emissions rules. “Anything that endangers that certainty is very troublesome to us,” the lobbyist said.

Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a strong ally of the Detroit automakers, told reporters Tuesday that he opposes Murkowski’s plan for the same reasons.

Levin shares some of Murkowski’s concerns about the economic effects of regulating stationary sources like power plants, but fears her effort to kill the endangerment finding would hurt Detroit.

“I think it could have a negative effect in that direction. It is critically important that there be a national rule that is a strong rule, but that it binds all states, and that no state should get the right to modify that national rule,” he said.