ALEX COHEN, host:
In Washington this morning, President Obama called for change in the way fuel efficiency standards are set. He also argued for tougher laws to reduce greenhouse gases. Here to talk about the president's proposal and the politics behind it, NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And Ron, what specifically did the president call for today?
RON ELVING: Alex, this is the latest turn in a long-running struggle between the federal government, the auto industry, and some of the states that want to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases from the auto industry more strictly than the federal government has permitted. And now California has special rights to set more stringent standards under the Clean Air Act because it had been already at that task before the federal government got involved.
So under the proposed restrictions that California would like to see, the automakers would have to cut the greenhouse gases that come from the tailpipe by 30 percent, that's almost a third, in new cars and light trucks by 2016. Not next week, but over the next several model years up till 2016. Now it's not just California, at least 13 other states have also attached their standards to California's, and a number of other states are looking at doing so.
And the auto industry has opposed this saying it's too stringent. It's asking too much of them. It's moving them too fast in this particular direction. And so they've opposed letting these states go their own way and set stricter standards, and the Bush administration sided with the auto industry and against those states. And this morning, Barack Obama said we're going to go the other way. We're going to go with the states. We're going to let them be stricter.
COHEN: This does seem like quite a break from the Bush administration policy. How significant are these changes?
ELVING: Well, that's a big one. And the president is also expected to pull another one by ordering the Transportation Department to take seriously some standards that were set by Congress earlier but which the Bush administration, again, never actually set regulations to, never put any regulatory muscle behind. And they would be restrictions or not - excuse me, not restrictions, but new standards for fuel efficiency that would call on the American fleet to reach 35 miles per gallon. That would be a 40 percent increase over where it is today.
Now, again, this is a big task for the auto industry to take on. And Barack Obama is clearly siding with those who say it's time to have a complete reversal on where the federal government's been the last eight years and put the federal government on the side of fewer greenhouse gas emissions and much greater fuel efficiency for all American manufactured cars. That's a tremendous, significant shift.
COHEN: Ron, what do you think the chances are that President Obama will be able to get a bill through Congress and how much political capital might he have to expend to do that?
ELVING: You know, down the road, he may want to have some additional legislation. But what he's showing this morning is just how much can be accomplished without any further legislation from Congress because there's a lot on the books now that the Bush administration was not putting itself behind, not allowing to go through. When it sided with the auto industry on the waivers and did not put any regulatory authority behind those fuel efficiency standards, it essentially eviscerated those laws so that they really did not have any effect. Barack Obama's just saying, let's let the laws that have already been written, that are already on the books, take full effect.
COHEN: Ron, in a moment we'll hear reaction from the automakers, but for now, can you give us a sense of how today's announcement is going over with environmentalists?
ELVING: It's bound to please them. This is what they've been calling for for years. And at the same time, it's no more than they really expected. Barack Obama as a senator from Illinois was on their side on these issues, and he won the backing of Al Gore and a lot other people who are concerned about global warming, climate change over the past several years in the presidential contest by taking these positions.
COHEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Thanks so much, Ron.
ELVING: Thank you, Alex.