Starting his second week in office, Obama took a major step toward allowing California and other states to target greenhouse gases through more stringent auto emission standards, and he ordered new federal rules directing automakers to start making more fuel-efficient cars as required by law.
The auto industry responded warily. Reducing planet-warming emissions is a great idea, carmakers and dealers said, but they expressed deep concern about costly regulations and conflicting state and federal rules at a time when people already are not buying cars. U.S. auto sales plunged 18 percent in 2008.
And industry analysts said the changes could cost consumers thousands of dollars - for smaller, "greener" cars.
Obama on Monday directed the Environmental Protection Agency to review whether California and more than a dozen states should be allowed to impose tougher auto emission standards on carmakers to fight greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration had blocked the efforts by the states, which account for about half of the nation's auto sales.
The new president also said his administration would issue new fuel-efficiency requirements to cover 2011 model year vehicles.
Obama acknowledged the worries of automakers but said urgent action was needed nonetheless. He said, "Our goal is not to further burden an already struggling industry. It is to help America's automakers prepare for the future."
He said that U.S. imports of foreign oil have continued to climb, even as previous presidents pledged to reverse the trend. No more, he said.
"I want to be clear from the beginning of this administration that we have made our choice: America will not be held hostage to dwindling resources, hostile regimes and a warming planet," Obama said in the ornate East Room of the White House, where an audience of environmentalists cheered him on.
Underscoring environmental worries, a new report said many damaging effects of climate change are already all but irreversible, sure to last until the year 3000 and beyond. "It's not like air pollution where if we turn off a smokestack, in a few days the air is clear," said Susan Solomon, chief author of the international report and a climate researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.
Showing the early limits of bipartisanship, House Republican leader John Boehner said Obama's reopening of a key California ruling was dangerous. "The effect of this policy will be to destroy American jobs at the very time government leaders should be working together to protect and create them," he said.
Obama's order for an EPA review of California's case could shake up the auto industry - 13 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted California's standards, and others are considering them. If California gets a federal waiver to enact tougher emissions standards, the other states could then sign on.
Also, Obama directed federal transportation officials to get going on new fuel efficiency rules, which will affect cars produced and sold for the 2011 model year. That step was needed to enforce a 2007 energy law, which calls for cars and trucks to be more efficient every year, to at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
Obama also meant to set a tone with his promises: Science will trump ideology and special interests, attention will stay high even when gas prices fall.
It was a none-too-subtle admonishing of previous administrations, chiefly George W. Bush's.
"It falls on us to choose whether to risk the peril that comes with our current course or to seize the promise of energy independence," Obama said. "And for the sake of our security, our economy and our planet, we must have the courage and the commitment to change."
Obama put that peril he mentioned in stark terms. He said dependence on foreign oil "bankrolls dictators, pays for nuclear proliferation and funds both sides of our struggle against terrorism. It puts the American people at the mercy of shifting gas prices, stifles innovation and sets back our ability to compete."
Recent presidential history is littered with grand but broken promises about weaning a gas-guzzling country from foreign oil. As long ago as 1973, Richard Nixon wanted the nation to be energy independent by 1980. The U.S. now imports even a bigger share of its oil than it did then.
This time could be different, said Phyllis Cuttino, director of a global warming campaign for the Pew Environment Group.
"It is very telling that at a time when he's working feverishly to pass an $825 billion stimulus package, he took these concrete steps on day six," she said. "That speaks volumes to his commitment." Environmental advocates, she added, are "all going to be applauding him - and holding his feet to the fire."
Underscoring Obama's attempt to shore up America's environmental credentials, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday appointed a special envoy for climate change.
Going back to Nixon's time, the U.S. imported 36 percent of its oil and refined products, about half coming from the OPEC cartel. During the first 11 months of 2008, imports accounted for nearly 67 percent of the petroleum used each day in the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.
Robert Ebel, an authority on energy policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said public sentiment about the new promises may be, "Here we go again." But Obama, given his popularity, a cooperative leadership on Congress and the nation's desire for a reshaped economy, could have a window.
"The memory of $4 a gallon gasoline is not that old, and the financial crisis is very much in people's minds," he said. "All these things put together will help."
Obama framed his energy plan as steady and pragmatic. Sounding much like President Bush did, he warned that there is no quick fix.