President Bush announced Monday that he had directed his administration to begin the long process of establishing higher fuel efficiency standards for new cars.
But officials said it was unclear if, at the end of that process, Bush would ultimately take it upon himself to raise the gas mileage of the nation's automobiles, which has not significantly increased in decades. Bush, speaking in the Rose Garden on Monday afternoon, said nothing would be put into effect until the regulatory process is completed at the end of 2008, just weeks before the end of his term of office.
Environmental groups, which have long called for substantial increases in the government-mandated fuel standards, expressed skepticism that the administration would enact new standards without congressional action and dissatisfaction that he did not offer specifics. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, called the announcement "a stall tactic."
Bush's announcement came during a period of new headlines about resurgent gasoline prices, as well as international and domestic political pressure to control U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels. It comes a few weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court, rebuffing the administration's arguments, ruled in favor of states seeking new federal controls on these emissions from automobiles.
The court found April 2 that carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and must be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency unless it scientifically determines it does not contribute to climate change or that action is not necessary. A growing scientific consensus holds that emissions of the gas are a serious problem that ought to be addressed urgently.
The EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, said during a teleconference with reporters on Monday that the administration was not arguing otherwise. "We accept the Supreme Court's decision," he said, hailing what he called "the first regulatory step to craft a proposal to control greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles."
Bush began the process with an executive order directing the EPA, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture to explore regulatory options to enact a proposal he announced in his State of the Union Address, which set a goal for reducing the projected growth of oil consumption within 10 years to a level 20 percent lower than current forecasts.
Bush has opposed setting across-the-board standards of the kind that Congress imposed decades ago, preferring flexibility to account for vehicle size and safety specifications, said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.
Officials have expressed frustration that Congress has not enacted his plan, based on efficiency standards as well as incentives for alternative fuels, which environmentalists have harshly criticized as limited and insufficient.