The power of the American Presidency to move the environmental agenda was never more apparent than during President Obama’s recent directive to EPA to reconsider California’s request to set tighter air emission and fuel efficiency standards. Under the Clean Air Act, California has long had the authority to exceed federal standards and typically it has made good use of this power. What makes President Obama’s directive even more important is that 13 states are joining California’s effort to beat the federal government’s auto emission and energy standards. These 14 states have about half of the cars and light trucks in the United States.
President Obama is also pushing the Department of Transportation to finally issue regulations on fuel efficiency that were required in 2007 legislation. The Bush Administration had delayed these rules in an effort to kill them. The reflexive word out of Detroit is that these new regulations will simply exacerbate the problems that the auto industry must face in it’s struggle to survive. This is, of course, more of the same nonsense that has resulted in the demise of the American auto industry. The temporary fix that SUV’s brought to the auto industry fooled them into thinking that the old mantra: "mini-cars bring mini-profits", would remain forever. Even though gas is cheaper now then it was last summer, when people finally make enough money to buy cars again, very few will opt for gas guzzlers. The reason is that no one knows when gas will go back to $4 or higher, and the issue of environmental sustainability is creeping into the American mindset.
President Obama and Governor Schwarzenegger are doing Detroit a favor. The capital funds GM and Chrysler have received to bail them out are supposed to help them retool and make a more fuel efficient auto. With the head-in-the-sand Bush era sputtering to an end, most people know that we need more fuel efficient cars. Let’s go ahead and build them. During World War II, Detroit retooled from civilian to military production in a matter of months. This time, they have until 2011 to develop a fuel efficient fleet. We may not be fighting World War II, but we are in a battle for economic survival. Let’s stop complaining and get down to work. The future of the U.S. auto industry requires that we quickly build a more fuel efficient auto fleet. In the long run we will need an all-electric car and we’ll also need an electrical power system that does not emit carbon dioxide. American industry has an opportunity to get out front on this, develop new technology and sell it to the world.
The other day, one of my students told me that I was either unrealistic or overly optimistic if I thought that America could develop an electric car and a renewable-based energy system. It’s not that I am overly optimistic; it’s that I do not see any alternative. We need to develop a way to power our economy and society without fossil fuels. Nuclear is too complicated and creates a toxic waste. Oil and coal are hard to get, will eventually run out, and emit carbon dioxide. We have built the American economy and our cities around the automobile. While we need to add mass transit, this country will always require personal transportation. Getting rid of autos would destroy our economy. Dismantling the modern economy would create massive political instability and dangerous unrest. Reinventing our energy system is the critical challenge of our time-and we have no choice-we must do it. It turns out that Jimmy Carter was right in 1977 when he said that the energy crisis was the moral equivalent of war
Pushing the auto industry to modernize is a critical piece to the American energy puzzle. But it is just the first step. President Obama should be commended for taking that first step, without waiting for new legislation and exercising the power of the Presidency. It is important that American industry get the idea that the new Administration is serious about building a green economy. Of course that means the new administration must be serious about building a green economy. Lots of people will say we can’t afford sustainability or that it’s a distraction from the real work of economic recovery. They are wrong. Our economic and political well being depends on our ability to develop an efficient, green economy. Sustainability is not a luxury and a fuel efficient automobile is essential to our future economc growth.