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Sweet: Obama’s new tougher fuel standard

President Barack Obama. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP file photo

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WASHINGTON — In September 2005, then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., delivered a little noticed energy policy speech here, in which he pushed to improve vehicle mileage standards.

It was in the days following Hurricane Katrina, when a natural disaster morphed into a manmade nightmare. Obama had visited storm refugees in Houston a few days after the hurricane.

Obama, who had been keeping a relatively low profile in his first Senate year, decided in the wake of the storm to use the considerable platform he had to speak out on behalf of the victims. He was getting a lot of press attention at the time for his remarks about Katrina — not on fuel efficiency.

So I wasn’t surprised on Sept. 15, 2005, when he talked about Katrina at the start of his address before a nonpartisan environment policy group, Resources for the Future.

“Our government wasn’t ready to save its own citizens from a catastrophic flood of biblical proportions,” Obama said. He discussed the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. “. . . The day of running a 21st century economy on a 20th century fossil fuel model are numbered — and we need to realize that before it’s too late,” Obama said as he focused on building vehicles that went farther on a gallon of gas.

OPINION

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I’m recalling this speech now because while Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaign for the White House and talk about what they want to do in the future, Obama is running the show every day.

He long ago gave up on Congress and is using his time left to act, through use of his executive powers or finalizing new rules.

On Tuesday, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation jointly finalized new rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel economy for trucks, buses, snowplows, large passenger vans and similar heavy and medium duty vehicles.

It’s likely one of the last major regulations Obama will be able to issue to curb greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change before he leaves office.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, in a briefing with reporters, noted Obama announced, a little over three years ago, his “Climate Action Plan” — a package of actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

“Let me first remind everyone why this is so important. 2016 is on pace to be the hottest year ever recorded, by a significant margin,” McCarthy said.

Heavy-duty vehicles account for a big chunk of carbon dioxide emissions and oil use. The rules finalized on Tuesday will be phased in over the next few years and run through 2027.

Phil Sharp retired as president of Resources for the Future on July 1. In 2005, Sharp introduced Obama before he delivered his talk. On Tuesday, I asked Sharp to reflect on what grew from the policy seeds Obama planted in 2005.

Sharp said Obama “in his maiden energy speech, made it clear that a very important action was to increase fuel efficiency standards on automobiles and trucks, and today represents a completion of that promise, which turns out to be the most significant climate change action to date by the federal government.”

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