LOS ANGELES AND WASHINGTON — President Obama will direct the EPA today to reconsider a Bush-era decision that stopped California and more than a dozen other states from setting their own stricter limits on auto emissions, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Should the agency allow a waiver from federal rules, states could require automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks far above current limits. It also would fulfill a long-held goal of environmentalists, as well as one of Obama's campaign promises.
A waiver would be another dramatic rebuke of Bush administration policies, as well as a swift statement that the new president intends to put his own stamp on environmental issues.
"This should prompt cheers from California to Maine," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, who praised Obama as "a man of his word" for the decision.
Tim Carmichael, senior policy director at the Coalition for Clean Air, hailed the decision as a vital step for the administration and the world in the fight against global warming.
Passenger vehicles are estimated to emit 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
"I think Obama got a clear message that this is a priority not only for California state protection but also for planetary protection," Carmichael said.
A waiver would be a bitter defeat for the auto industry, which had for years hotly contested the implementation of the California rules and had applauded the Bush administration decision in December 2007 to deny a state waiver for California.
A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said Sunday that the industry group did not have a comment on the matter. Mike Moran, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co., said the company would not release a statement until Obama made a formal announcement.
At least 17 other states have adopted or are considering California's rules, and a waiver also would allow them to regulate tailpipe emissions. Altogether, those states, which include New York and Florida, represent about 40% of the population, according to auto industry estimates.
That has provoked considerable anxiety among carmakers. They could be forced to spend billions of dollars to comply with the California emissions rules, which are distinct from -- and more rigorous than -- federal fuel standards passed in 2007.
The federal standards would raise the national fleet average to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
Bush's waiver denial provoked California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sue the federal government. Separately, Congress launched an investigation on the decision-making process at the Environmental Protection Agency, which must grant California the waiver before the state may regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Last week, Schwarzenegger sent a letter to President Obama asking that the agency reconsider the matter. "Your administration has a unique opportunity to . . . move America toward global leadership on addressing climate change," the letter said.
Also last week, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of California's Air Resources Board, asked the EPA to open a "reconsideration process" in a letter she sent to Lisa Jackson, that agency's new administrator.
In December, Nichols indicated that the state board had been in close contact with Obama's transition team to help plan a way to pass the waiver and adopt specific rules on rolling out the regulation.
Earlier this month, Jackson pledged to reconsider the request -- and hinted that she supported granting it -- during a Senate hearing into her nomination.
After Obama turns the matter over to the EPA, the agency is expected to take several months to reach a final decision on whether to reverse the Bush denial.
News of Obama's expected statement won quick praise from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who said it was "more than welcome news."
As chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, she said, she plans to work with the EPA to move a waiver through quickly.
"An immediate EPA review of the waiver decision shows respect for California" and the other states, Boxer said, while they wait for the "green light to address global warming pollution from motor vehicles."
In 2002, California passed a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for vehicles, but couldn't enforce it, as a series of lawsuits filed by the auto industry held it up.
Last year, judges handed down several rulings that would allow the rule's adoption, but an EPA waiver was still required.
The California rules don't strictly limit mileage. But by setting caps on carbon emissions, they would effectively require vehicles to reach as much as 42 mpg by 2020, according to some estimates. Currently, only two mass-produced vehicles, the Toyota Prius and the hybrid Honda Civic, average at least 42 mpg.
To reach that level on a fleetwide basis, automakers would likely have to invest in costly new technologies such as hybrid drive trains. Industry estimates put the per-vehicle cost of compliance as high as $5,000.