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William K. Reilly
By William K. Reilly

Op Ed: San Francisco Chronicle, 1/23/2012)
These days, people seem surprised when government works the way it was intended. This week, in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, we have the satisfaction of witnessing firsthand government working exactly as it is supposed to. A state agency is working in concert with not one, but two federal agencies, supported by many local ones. Businesses are pleased with the outcome of a government regulation, consumers will save money, and they will be healthier as a result. I was fortunate to have been there when the achievements we will observe this week were but a vision.

A cross-country series of hearings focusing on the next round of national standards for cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars will wrap up in San Francisco this week. That's appropriate. California has long played a leading role in ensuring cleaner, more efficient cars for all Americans - not just Californians.

The hearings, hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will gather public comments on a proposal to require automakers to hit a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025. It is an ambitious goal, yet a doable one - and it is the right step for consumers, for automakers, for the environment, and for our economy overall.

Raising the bar for autos helps to protect the health - and the wallets - of America's families. It also drives innovation and investment, as automakers look for ways to make vehicles that run more cleanly and more efficiently. The drive toward innovation will help create jobs and an American automobile industry that is more competitive in the international marketplace.

A goal of 54.5 mpg would have seemed all but impossible when I was EPA administrator for President George H. W. Bush. Back then, average mileage hovered around 20 mpg. For years afterward, the United States made little progress on gas mileage, as the rest of the world passed us by.

After decades of stagnation, President George W. Bush got the ball rolling again, ratcheting mileage standards upward. When President Obama announced the 54.5-mpg goal last year, executives at the major automakers stood by his side in a show of support.

Make no mistake: We would not be where we are today if California had not kept up the pressure for cleaner cars.

Later this week, the California Air Resources Board will hold a hearing on the state's Advanced Clean Car Program. Had California never introduced its groundbreaking clean-cars standards in 2002, we would not be where we are today as a nation - cruising toward 54.5 mpg and growing healthy markets for hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrids, clean diesels, electrics and other innovative technologies.

California's tailpipe emissions standard for carbon is set at the same level as the federal standard. Automakers will have a single, clear target that they have said publicly they can meet. Meanwhile, the air board will continue to press for improvements in California.

This is the kind of leadership California must continue to demonstrate if we, as a nation, hope to create a vehicle fleet that is cleaner, more efficient, safe and innovative to compete in the 21st century global vehicle market.
William K. Reilly is a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and is currently a San Francisco-based adviser to TPG Capital.