By KEN THOMAS and ERICA WERNER \ WASHINGTON
The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday slapped down California's bid for first-in-the-nation greenhouse gas limits on cars, trucks and SUVs, refusing the state a waiver that would have allowed those restrictions to take effect.
"The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution - not a confusing patchwork of state rules," EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson told reporters on a conference call. "I believe this is a better approach than if individual states were to act alone."
The long-awaited decision amounted to a serious setback for California and at least 16 other states seeking the new car regulations to achieve their anti-global warming goals.
The tailpipe standards California adopted in 2004 would have forced automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and light trucks by 2016, with the cutbacks beginning in the 2009 model year.
Under the Clean Air Act, the state needed a federal waiver to implement the rules.
"It is disappointing that the federal government is standing in our way and ignoring the will of tens of millions of people across the nation," said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "California sued to compel the agency to act on our waiver, and now we will sue to overturn today's decision and allow Californians to protect our environment."
Twelve other states - Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington - have adopted the California emissions standards, and the governors of Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Utah have said they also plan to adopt them. The rules were also under consideration in Iowa.
With Wednesday's denial, those other states are also prevented from moving forward.
In explaining his decision, Johnson cited energy legislation approved by Congress and signed into law Wednesday by President Bush. The law requires automakers to achieve an industrywide average fuel efficiency for cars, SUVs and small trucks of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
Johnson said Congress' approach would be better than a "partial state-by-state approach." He said California's law would have yielded a 33.8 mpg standard, but California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols said Johnson's math was "just wrong."
She said the California regulations would have resulted in a 36.8 miles per gallon average and would have taken effect sooner than the federal standards.
"EPA is now trying to hide behind the passage of (fuel economy) legislation," Nichols said. "This is really unconscionable."
Environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers also denounced the decision. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate's environment committee, said she'd question Johnson at a hearing. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the government oversight and reform committee in the House, vowed to investigate, alleging the decision was dictated by politics - something Johnson denied.
"This federal agency blunder is bad policy and worse law," Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said. "We will take the EPA to court if necessary and once again demonstrate that no one is above the law. If the EPA won't obey the law or take the lead, at least it should get out of the way so states can protect our environment."
Automakers applauded the outcome.
General Motors Corp. (nyse: GM - news - people ) said in a statement that "by removing the disproportionate burden of complying with a patchwork of state-specific regulations that would divert our resources, automakers can concentrate on developing and implementing the advanced technologies in ways that will meet America's driving needs."
Wednesday's decision was further confirmation of the Bush administration's adamant opposition to mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, even after a string of court decisions affirming the right of states and the federal government to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
It was the first time the EPA had fully denied California a Clean Air Act waiver since Congress gave California the right to obtain such waivers in 1967.
The auto regulations were to have been a major part of California's first-in-the-nation global warming law which aims to reduce greenhouse gases economy-wide by 25 percent - to 1990 levels - by 2020. The auto emission reductions would have accounted for about 17 percent of the state's proposed reductions.
Nichols said California expects to win on appeal and does not plan to shift its strategy to meeting greenhouse gas reduction goals.
Despite the Bush administration's opposition to mandatory greenhouse gas limits, some congressional Democrats hope to craft a federal law. Earlier this month Boxer's committee passed a bill with mandatory caps on greenhouse gases although there are no immediate plans for the full Senate or the House to act.
California had been waiting for Wednesday's decision for two years. EPA put it off while a Supreme Court case was pending on whether the agency could regulate greenhouse gases. In April, the Supreme Court said it could.
In the wake of that ruling, President Bush directed federal agencies to craft regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. Johnson said Wednesday he would review the newly signed energy bill to see what additional steps might need to be taken.
Associated Press writer Samantha Young in Sacramento contributed to this report.