"If I were betting, I'd imagine the Obama administration would stay out of this altogether," said Ann Carlson, faculty director of UCLA Law School's climate change center.
Still, the president could indirectly support the goals of the low-carbon fuel standard by continuing federal mandates and incentives for cleaner-burning fuels, experts agreed.
Obama could, for instance, extend a 4-year-old production tax credit for cellulosic ethanol, which could increase the supply of a particularly low-carbon ethanol for California's fuel suppliers. Cellulosic ethanol is made from non-food crops like wood chips, switchgrass and plants - not from corn, which is a higher-carbon ethanol.
The $1.01-per-gallon credit is set to expire Dec. 31, 2012, and while there's still no cellulosic ethanol being produced in the United States at a commercial scale, three plants with nearly 80 million gallons in combined capacity are expected to become operational next year.
Last year, California approved a tougher Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requiring utilities to get 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. As of July, each of the three major investor-owned utilities said they were nearly two-thirds of the way toward meeting that goal.
Even so, "it it will be easier to achieve" under Obama than it would have been under Mitt Romney, said Michael Gerrard, who directs Columbia Law School's Center for Climate Change Law.
The reason is that Obama is more likely to push to extend federal loans, grants and tax credits for wind and solar energy installations and other clean technologies, which Mitt Romney indicated he might cut.
California's first RPS was passed in 2002. The policy has helped turn the state into the backbone of the U.S. clean economy. The state accounts for more than half of the country's solar projects and about 10 percent of all wind farms.
Nearly 170,000 California residents have jobs in the broadly defined green economy, according to a recent study. Last year California took in $3.7 billion in venture capital investments in clean technologies - more than half of all such investments in North America.
Gerrard said a national clean electricity standard that spurs a nationwide boom in installations would help California's utilities, because they're allowed to meet part of their RPS requirements by purchasing credits from owners of projects in other states.
Obama has supported a plan to require 80 percent of the nation's electricity generation to come from lower-carbon sources, including natural gas and nuclear energy, by 2035.
For California's new mandate for ultra-clean cars, Obama's victory removes any doubt the program will move forward.
The rule, approved in January, requires 15 percent of all cars sold in California to be zero-emissions vehicles (ZEV). Compliance begins with model year 2018; full compliance is expected by 2025. State regulators unanimously passed the mandate after four years of bargaining with the auto industry and environmental groups.
The mandate could result in more than 1 million all-electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen vehicles on California's roads in the next decade, about 20 times the amount of such cars on U.S. roads today. It's the latest move in California's half-century-long effort to cut air pollution and carbon emissions from cars and trucks.
California has sole authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate new car emissions, so long as the state's standards are as stringent as federal standards and the EPA grants it a waiver. It earned that designation largely because of its pioneering efforts in the late 1950's to limit smog emissions, long before the federal government got on board.
Currently, California is waiting for a waiver from the EPA to move ahead with the ZEV program. Ann Notthoff, the California director of the NRDC Action Fund, the advocacy arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said EPA is expected to grant the waiver this year.
Notthoff said if Romney had won the presidency, and a decision on the waiver was delayed, it could have potentially put the program at risk.
The EPA's approval will open the door for other states to adopt the ZEV rule. Ten states and Washington, D.C., have already pledged to do so for the 2018-2025 model years. They are: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.
That could double the impact of California's program and spur sales of more than 3.3 million electric and hydrogen cars across the country, according to estimates.
Overall, Notthoff and other environmental advocates are breathing a sigh of relief. "It's going to be easier to move forward" under Obama, Notthoff said.
The onus is now on California to show other states the environmental and economic benefits of adopting its policies, said Horowitz of UCLA. "I don't think that depends very much on who is in the White House."
(InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, non-partisan news organization that covers clean energy, carbon energy, nuclear energy and environmental science.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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