"We work, obviously, within the laws on the books," Browner said on "Good Morning America" today. "And what we're using is the president's executive authority to propose these standards, and it is the first-ever time that EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and DOT [Department of Transportation] have taken their existing individual authorities and woven them together so that we can give the American public and the car companies what they want."
There is, of course, an environmental impact of the president's decision. The administration says the change, over the lifetime of the new vehicles' lives, will reduce emissions by 900 million metric tons, or enough to be comparable to taking 177 million cars off the road or shutting down 194 coal-fired power plants.
Through 2016, it will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil that will not have to be imported from overseas, according to the Obama administration.
"Just to give you a sense of magnitude, that's more oil than we imported last year from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Libya and Nigeria combined," Obama said, noting that it is also the equivalent of taking 58 million cars off American roads for an entire year.
The White House said these new standards still allow consumers to have a choice in vehicles, but they will now have to choose a more fuel-efficient car.
"All companies will be required to make more efficient and cleaner cars," a senior Obama administration official said. "We did that by proposing individual standards for each class size of vehicles and then a fleet average for each company. This has the effect of preserving consumer choice. You can continue to buy any particular car you'd like."
Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said he welcomed the changes.
"These decisions mean that we will guzzle less gas, save money at the pump, pollute a lot less," Becker said. "And that the automakers in the United States will be forced to finally compete with the Japanese manufacturers who have been beating them in the marketplace."
The plan comes ahead of the Memorial Day holiday, the traditional start of the summer driving season, and as fuel prices are beginning to spike again. The Department of Energy reported Monday that the national average price for a gallon of gas rose to $2.31, up 7 cents in the past week.
Auto executives, union officials and environmentalists joined Obama in the Rose Garden for today's announcement ,and the president noted that in the past these groups have been at odds with each other.
"In fact, some of the groups here have been embroiled in lawsuits against one another, so that gives you a sense of how impressive and significant it is that these leaders from across the country are willing to set aside the past for the sake of the future," Obama said. "For what everyone here believes, even as views differ on many important issues, is that the status quo is no longer acceptable."
Although the auto industry has long opposed these moves initiated through administrative rule-making, this time American and major foreign auto companies are onboard, working with the Obama administration on setting the new national standards.
Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of Edmunds.com, an automotive Web site, says one reason is because automobile makers face a tangle of different state regulations that will now be replaced by a single national standard.