The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday granted California the right to enforce a 2002 law that mandates deep cuts to automotive greenhouse-gas emissions through 2016, marking an official truce in a long struggle among automakers, the state and the federal government.
The ruling follows a settlement on the issue brokered by the Obama administration in May. While to some degree a formality, Tuesday's decision sets what environmental groups and some in the auto industry say is an important precedent. It stands to give California regulators the power to drive national fuel-efficiency standards in the future.
California is the only state with the power under the federal Clean Air Act to set its own air pollution rules – subject to approval by the EPA. If the agency blesses the standards, other states can copy them, giving California leverage over national policy.
The state does not have the power to directly set fuel-efficiency standards. Tuesday's ruling, though, puts the EPA on record for the first time endorsing California's authority to regulate automotive greenhouse-gas emissions, which is close to the same thing.
That precedent could be pivotal in future fuel-efficiency and greenhouse-gas battles, because the auto-industry lobby is relatively weak in California.
"We're very much insulated from the political pressures that Detroit can bring to bear in Washington," said Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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