Biden faces pressure to drive gasoline and diesel cars out of the US

Source: By Oliver Milman, The Guardian • Posted: Monday, May 3, 2021

The president has touted the benefits of a boom in electric cars – but as states move to phase out new polluting vehicles his administration is pressed to go further

Vehicles on a freeway in Los Angeles, California, in 2019. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images


Joe Biden’s administration, seeking deep cuts to planet-heating emissions, is facing pressure to take a previously unthinkable step: declare the end of the internal combustion engine in the US.

Washington state has moved to call time on the age of gasoline and diesel cars, with the legislature passing a goal that new car sales be only zero-emission vehicles from 2030, including out of state purchases that are then imported. The legislation now awaits to signature of Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat who previously ran for president on the climate crisis platform.

While not a strict mandate, the Washington bill is the first time a state has passed a law aimed at phasing out the sale of new polluting vehicles. National momentum is now starting to gather pace.

The California governor, Gavin Newsom, has, via executive order, banned the sale of new gasoline cars from 2035. And this week both chambers of New York’s legislature passed a directive that would ensure 100% of new car sales are electric by 2035, with all new trucks following by 2045.

Biden has consistently touted the economic benefits from a boom in electric cars – in his address to Congress on Wednesday the president said there is “no reason why American workers can’t lead the world in the production of electric vehicles and batteries”.

But his administration is being pressed to go further and ensure the US joins countries such the UK, France and Norway in imposing a national ban of new gasoline and diesel car sales to help slash emissions to net zero by 2050. Last week, the governors of 12 states, including New York and California, wrote to the president to urge he take “bold federal leadership” and ensure all new cars sold from 2035 are zero-emission.

“I would love to see President Biden set a goal of 60% of sales to be electric cars by 2030, before all electric sales in 2035,” said Margo Oge, a former director of transportation air quality at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “We can’t wait any longer, we have run out of time with climate change and we need car companies to start making that transformation now.”

Oge said the phase-outs by California and Washington state are “very powerful” but that a national mandate was crucial if the US is to meet its emissions goals and help stave off disastrous climate change. Transportation is the largest source of emissions in the US and the increasing longevity of modern vehicles means it would take at least 15 years to phase out polluting cars once sales of them are halted.

The task appears daunting – only about 2% of cars sold a year in the US are electric, with many American drivers put off by the relatively high cost of models and concerns over the ability to recharge batteries. Prices are droppingand sales are expected to climb, but not at the rate researchers say is needed to avoid dangerous global heating, with electric vehicles needing to make up more than half of sales a decade from now and making up 90% of all cars on American roads by 2050.

“There’s a lot of work to do but everyone needs to know where we are heading so a national mandate would be very forceful,” said Matthew Metz, co-executive director of Coltura, an environment group based in Seattle that campaigned for the cars bill in Washington state. “I understand it’s politically very sensitive, but to meet the emissions cuts Biden will need to do this. If the UK can do this, the United States can do this.”

Under the Clean Air Act, the Biden administration can set vehicle emissions standards that only electric vehicles could meet. The EPA is set to unveil new rules for cars and trucks in July, but these are expected to simply unwind a move by Donald Trump’s administration to water down pollution standards that are due in 2025. A further rule would be required to end the century-long dominance of the internal combustion engine.

Biden has promised millions of new jobs will be created via the expansion of renewable energy and electric vehicles, but unions in rust belt states – only narrowly won by the president in the 2020 election – are wary of the shift.

“Squirrels can make electric cars and squirrels can maintain them,” said Robin Chase, an environmentalist and co-founder of car sharing company Zipcar, emphasizing the ease of making the vehicles. She pointed out that manufacturing of electric cars requires a third less workers than their traditional counterparts. The UAW, the auto workers union, recently warned there is “not a one-size-fits-all solution or timeline and policies must provide sufficient flexibility and avoid unrealistic mandates”.

Carmakers, too, are grappling with the implications of a complete shift to electric vehicles. American drivers are increasingly favoring larger, and more polluting, SUVs and companies such as General Motors, which has pledged to go all-electric by 2035, are hoping that zero-emission versions of popular models will allow for a seamless transition. GM is set to launch an electric version of its Hummer vehicle while Ford is preparing to roll out its best-selling F-150 as an electric model next year.

“The auto industry is committed to working toward a net-zero carbon transportation future,” said John Bozzella, chief executive of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group.

The Biden administration is also attempting to address the lack of electric charging ports, vowing in its recent infrastructure plan to install 500,000 new charging stations, which experts say is only a small portion of what will be required. The plan also proposes rebates for electric car purchases but some advocates point out that new sales are dominated by wealthier people and other incentives would be better targeted.

“The sales are coming from people who are older and wealthier, so why not support things like electric bikes to help cut emissions from short journeys?” said Chase. “We need to get in front of this and make this transition. We need to tell the industry ‘here is where we are going’. If we don’t, we are all going to be left flat-footed by the rest of the world.”