Calif. Official Weighs In On Obama Order

Mary Nichols, the chair of the California Air Resources Board, says President Barack Obama's move to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to review requests by California and other states to set tighter auto emissions and fuel efficiency standards is a victory for her state. She says it sets the country on a path to transform domestic auto manufacturing to keep up with the needs of 21st century.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Joining us now is Mary Nichols. She is the chair of the California Air Resources Board. Ms. Nichols, welcome to the program.

Ms. MARY NICHOLS (Chairman, California Air Resources): Thank you.

NORRIS: California has long been out front on this issue, and you've been there for much of this time. How significant is today's move out of the White House to sign this memorandum?

Ms. NICHOLS: Well, it's a tremendous victory for California in our many year-long struggle to establish standards that will force the automakers to produce and sell us cars that we know they can make because they're already selling them in some parts of the world that are cleaner and more efficient.

But it's also important I think for the future because it really sets our country on a path to begin working, hopefully, with the auto industry to transform our domestic auto manufacturing into something that is more in keeping with the needs of the 21st century.

NORRIS: Now as we heard in Elizabeth Shogren's piece, the automakers are not very happy about this. They're still fighting the proposed standards. They say that this whole process is somewhat chaotic and confusing with a patchwork of laws to apply to some states and not to others.

Ms. NICHOLS: I don't think it's a patchwork. There is one standard which has been adopted by California, and because of the Federal Clean Air Act, now 16 states are joining with us to adopt our standards. So, states that represent a majority of the consumers in the United States will, in fact, be using the exact same standards for cars and light trucks.

Of course, the car companies can also sell those very same cars - there's nothing weird or exotic about them - everywhere in the United States. So, you know, if they have a concern about enforcement or working with the various states, we've invited them to come in and talk with us. We're eager to talk with them, but this is not going to be a tough thing for them to do.

NORRIS: Polls show that environmental issues are of concern to the American public, but they're farther down on the list, below the economy and health care and some other issues. Will a program like this make cars more expensive?

Ms. NICHOLS: Well, this is one of the areas where I think the auto companies have been shooting themselves in the foot because they continually argue that this new program is somehow going to add thousands of additional dollars to the price of a vehicle. That's just not true.

We think that, on average, the additional cost of compliance, which get us to a 30 percent improvement in fuel economy by the year 2016, the cost of that is going to be less than $400 on the price of the vehicle. And even with low gasoline prices which, frankly, we and every body else think is not going to last all that long, this is going to be paid back in a matter of a couple of years. So, we're talking about a solid investment.

NORRIS: The president's decision to sign this order and to do so so early in his administration, what do you think that signals about this new administration and its approach to environmental policy?

Ms. NICHOLS: Well, I think the first thing that it signals is that this is a president who intends to make good on the big commitments that he made in the course of his campaign. He's done a number of things in his first week or two in office to signal that he means to reverse bad decisions from the previous administration and set us on a different course. This one is from our perspective, of course, a no brainer, but really it is a very significant move. And I think...

NORRIS: Can I just jump in here, though? Is it a signal of the direction that he intends to follow, or could it possibly be interpreted as a poke in the eye to Republicans?

Ms. NICHOLS: Oh, I don't think so. I think that there were many Republicans, including former administrators of EPA, who agreed with California - not to mention my boss, Governor Schwarzenegger, who's also a Republican in good standing.

The Bush administration's position was opposed by their entire career staff, and I think it's a signal that he intends to honor the technical and scientific advice that he's hearing from all of his staff that this is something that needs to be done.

Even more significant, I think in some ways, is the fact that he's also ordered the Department of Transportation to take another look at their fuel economy standards and to take a more aggressive stance on those, as well. So, this is not just a one shot deal or a political move in my opinion. It's a sign of a real shift.

NORRIS: Mary Nichols, thanks so much for talking to us.

Ms. NICHOLS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Mary Nichols is the Chair of the California Air Resources Board.

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