California plans next steps to cut car pollution

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California is planning the next stage of clean car standards even as U.S. President Barack Obama announces federal plans based on the state’s model, its top climate change official said on Tuesday.

Obama on Tuesday set 2016 mileage and carbon emissions goals for U.S. fleets, which will be codified by the federal Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“California will be immediately getting to work on what the standards should be for beyond 2016,” Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said in a telephone interview. She expects “a much more stringent standard.”

Other state plans for vehicle emissions, from caps on pollution by big rig diesel trucks to requirements that gasoline and other providers cut the amount of carbon in their fuel, are still under way, despite the state’s agreement to work with the federal government on car emissions.

“It doesn’t signal any kind of flagging interest on the part of California in being part of a transformation of the auto fleet to something much more efficient than what it is today,” Nichols said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will set a 35.5 miles per gallon fleet average target. The Environmental Protection Agency will set a fleet goal of tailpipe emissions of 250 grams of carbon per mile traveled by 2016, matching the California goal, but ramping up at a slower rate, said Nichols.

The three big U.S. car makers had average fuel efficiency of 24-25 miles per gallon in 2007, while carbon emissions for 2009-model vehicles range from a low of 135 grams per mile for the Toyota Prius to 400 and higher for SUVs, according to California.

California, with federal approval, sets its own vehicle standards. It effectively works as a laboratory -- the federal government often later adopts its standards. Nichols expects the federal government in June to let it regulate tailpipe emissions, which it would coordinate with Obama’s new policies.

Longer term, the state will focus on performance targets like carbon emissions, although it has set targets for production of zero-emission vehicles, such as all-electric cars. The board will consider rebates of vehicle fees, which Nichols called ‘feebates’, later this year, too.

“We will be working with our colleagues at EPA, but the reality is that because California is one state with a very strong market and a history of desire for advanced vehicles, we can move much more quickly and aggressively than the federal government,” she said.

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Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; editing by Mary Milliken and Mohammad Zargham