BY RACHEL BECKER, CalMatters MAY 24, 2019
Mary Nichols, the powerful head of the California Air Resources Board, didn’t even need to explicitly threaten a ban on gas-powered cars last week to get the attention of carmakers.
The warning was only in her prepared statements for a workshop with the state Transportation Commission. But the remarks, obtained by Bloomberg, hit headlines and the industry took notice. That was the point.
Nichols is making it clear that if the Trump administration follows through on threats to hamstring California’s ability to police tailpipe emissions, the state will need to find another way to keep the air clean. That will affect people and industries, including car manufacturers.
At issue is the Trump administration’s proposal to roll back tailpipe emissions and fuel economy regulations that have been on the books for years. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency would also yank a key waiver that lets California make its own clean air rules and require that auto manufacturers sell a certain percentage of clean cars in the state. The federal proposal hasn’t yet been finalized — and likely will be tied up in court for years. Still, the transportation sector is the number one producer of greenhouse gases in California, and the state is bracing for a hit to its climate goals and air quality.
The potential fallout was the subject of last week’s workshop with the Transportation Commission. Remarks written for the workshop said the rollbacks could force the air board to look for other ways to curb pollution, including “an outright ban on internal combustion engines.” Out loud, however, Nichols spoke more vaguely of “potentially looking at things like fees, taxes and bans on certain types of vehicles and products. And these are not things that most of us think are the right way to go.”
“Ban — it’s not a word that we use”
A ban on gas-powered cars isn’t imminent, Nichols said in an interview with CALmatters this week. “Ban — it’s not a word that we use, and we don’t like to use it,” she said. “But sometimes, we perhaps have to make a point. And the message here was intended to be heard by the auto industry.”
The auto industry initially supported the fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards the Obama administration finalized in 2012. The standards were set through 2025, and a federal review in 2016 reported that industry was technologically on track to meet them. It also projected fuel savings and public health benefits for the public. But when President Donald Trump took office, the auto industry asked the administration to revisit the issue.
Last week wasn’t the first time Nichols had pointed words for the auto industry. At a public meeting in 2017, she asked automakers: “What were you thinking when you threw yourselves upon the mercy of the Trump administration to try to solve your problems?” It’s not even the first time she’s talked about a ban.
Perhaps that’s why when the auto industry heard Nichols’ latest message, it didn’t appear to worry. Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Auto Alliance trade group, said if the state banned the sale of traditional gas-powered vehicles, the industry would wind up selling more electrified ones. “We’d move them from dealer’s lots and get them into people’s garages. So that’s good — good for automakers,” said Bergquist, who added the automakers she represents have a stake in selling the electrified models they’ve invested in. The concern would be in areas where automakers don’t yet have enough options — like work vehicles, for instance. “There are very few electrified pickups that could do the work that [farmers] need to do,” Bergquist said.
“An untested legal question.”
No matter the action — bans, status quo, or a continued battle with the Trump administration — California can expect to spend time in court to protect its air. But Bergquist declined to speculate whether the auto industry would fight a gas-powered car ban in court. “We haven’t focused on it, just because we think it might have been some hyperbole,” she said.
The threat might not be real now, but it’s not an empty one. Nichols said they could do it, if it came to that. “A requirement for 100% of all sales to be zero emissions vehicles means that no internal combustion engines would be able to be sold after a certain date,” she said.The agency, she clarifies, isn’t proposing to do this right now — but, she said, “It’s something we would have to consider.”
Still, Meredith Hankins, Shapiro fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, warns it won’t be easy to go through the EPA to make that kind of change. “It may be sort of dead on arrival under this current administration,” Hankins said. And going around the EPA is “an untested legal question.”
While other legal experts agree the air board probably could find a way to ban combustion engines, the question is whether it should. “That would be a very blunt, last resort approach,” Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a member of the air board, said in an email.
Sperling said he thinks a better strategy would be a legislative one called “feebates,” which use fees to discourage dirty car use, and rebates to encourage people to drive cleaner vehicles. The Legislature has yet to agree. Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, saw his bill to ban registrations of gas-powered vehicles by 2040 die. His second, a watered-down proposal to plan for a clean-car future, stalled as well.
Local officials aren’t waiting for state action. New York City will kick off a toll program to cut downtown traffic in a few years, and Boston and Los Angeles are eyeing similar congestion-pricing initiatives. Smaller cities like Sacramento have increased parking prices and improved light rail. The strategy, Hankins said, makes it too expensive to drive in cities.
These are steps to a world Nichols is shooting for in the next quarter century. “By 2045, there can’t be any cars sold in California that aren’t zero emissions vehicles of one sort or another. I don’t expect to be alive to see that, but that’s where we’re headed.”
Washington State’s Senate narrowly passed SB 5811 this week, paving the way for the Evergreen State to become the 12th to adopt California’s zero-emissions mandate. SB 5811 passed the House in January, and Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill.
When that happens, the entire US west coast will require that at least 5% of auto sales are EVs, increasing to 8% by 2025.
The most immediate effect could be an increased choice of all-electric models in Washington. Some automakers elect to sell their EVs only in ZEV states. After the bill is signed into law, more of those compliance-oriented electric vehicles are expected to be offered in Washington.
Washington had adopted California emissions standards in 2005 but without the Zero-Emissions (ZEV) Mandate. The Senate’s approval of the ZEV mandate comes after years of opposition from trade associations representing major automakers.
Don Anair, research director for clean transportation at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said:
With the passage of this bill, Washington is closer to joining the 11 other states that have established successful zero-emission vehicle programs. Whatever state policymakers can do to quickly electrify transportation, clean up fuels, and reduce carbon emissions is a step in the right direction to help us avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
The Union of Concerned Scientists explained that the transportation sector is Washington’s biggest source of carbon pollution. The organization said that driving an average electric vehicle in Washington contributes 1.3 metric tons of global warming emissions per year, compared to the 4.9 metric tons emitted by the average new gasoline-powered car.
SB 5811 also expands the types of vehicles required to meet California standards to include medium-duty vehicles.
Washington is not expected to pass E2SHB 1110, which failed to clear the Senate Transportation Committee. That policy, if passed, would provide rebates to car buyers purchasing an EV. It would also boost the state’s biofuels industry. Its opposition is based on how it could result in higher prices for gasoline and diesel fuel.
However, in February, Washington’s legislature passed HB 2311, which would require the state to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. That’s more ambitious than the current goal, set 12 years ago, to reduce human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases 50% below 1990 levels by mid-century.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee checking out a Tesla Model X
The state is not on track to meet the prior goal. A study commissioned by Gov. Inslee found that for the state to reduce carbon emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, it “must shift from internal combustion engine vehicles to a fleet almost entirely composed of electric vehicles.”
Washington Governor Jay Inslee released his ambitious clean-energy plan last May.
The First US State to Ban Gas Cars?
Also in February, Washington considered a proposal for the state to refuse to register any new car that runs on gasoline by 2030. The bill failed to advance because it missed a cutoff in the legislature’s calendar. The proposed ban on gas-powered vehicles is still on the table. The bill was co-sponsored by eight committee heads in the lower chamber. At least 13 countries and several states, including California, have either proposed or started implementing such bans.
The gas-car ban in Washington would allow drivers who own an internal-combustion vehicle bought before 2030 to continue driving that gas or diesel car.
The Trump administration in September revoked the waiver that allows California to protect its citizens from air pollution by setting emission standards. Other states are permitted by current law to adopt California rules.
The Trump administration’s steps to revoke the waiver are supported by General Motors, Toyota, and Fiat-Chrysler. But Washington now becomes the 12th state to sign on to ZEV rules. The dominoes are falling.
If automakers such as GM – which is gung-ho on an electric future – want a single emissions standard across the land, they would applaud Washington State’s adoption of the ZEV mandate. Those automakers would drop support of the Trump administration’s actions – and apply those resources to making and selling EVs for all 50 states.
FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.