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California has long served as the nation's bellwether on many fronts, not least in efforts to reduce the automobile exhaust emissions that for years had turned the air in Southern California a sickly brown that caused the eyes to smart and throats and lungs to congest.

With a landmark decision by the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, giving California a waiver from federal clean-air standards to enforce stricter rules, the Golden State will again lead the way.

Happily, the announcement effectively ended the five-year campaign by the Bush administration to stymie California's go-it-alone fuel-efficiency law.

The state's request in 2004 for a federal waiver to implement a new set of standards to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming was denied. Among the specious arguments by the Bush EPA that ignored the 40-year interpretation of the Clean Air Act was that California had failed to prove "compelling and extraordinary conditions" for adopting new tailpipe standards for cars and trucks.

Neither could it prove the state was any more threatened by the effects of global warming than was the rest of the country. So California and the 12 other states that were prepared to adopt the stricter rules remained bound to the anemic federal standards. That is, until Tuesday.

The decision, following intensive discussions involving California, the Obama administration and the auto industry, means the federal government will adopt California's fuel-efficiency standards, but the state cannot pursue still-tougher rules before 2017. However, California is allowed to implement the new standards with vehicles sold this year, while the federal limits start kicking in for model years 2012-2016.

The feds' new rules mandate that cars and trucks sold in America must achieve an average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. That amounts to about a 40 percent improvement over the current 25 mpg.

Industry critics, who already decry the state's tougher emissions rules on electrical power plants, complain they have raised prices for business and consumers. And they see no reason to give California primacy in setting standards for mileage efficiency.

However, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is mindful of history, pointing out that California (once again) "could serve as a pioneer and a laboratory for the nation in setting new motor vehicle emission standards."