Calif. might matter more than Biden for EV sales

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 7, 2020

When it comes to boosting electric vehicle adoption in the United States, California may hold more sway than the federal government, experts say.

That means the Golden State could steer the country toward an electric future regardless of whether President-elect Joe Biden takes aggressive steps to promote clean cars.

“I think it’s plausible that the EV market could move even without federal leadership, as long as the federal government lets California move forward,” said Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law.

“National leadership is really, really important here. But California could do a whole lot,” she added.

California has historically led the nation in setting stringent environmental regulations, and auto emissions rules have been no exception.

Under Section 209 of the Clean Air Act, California can receive a waiver from EPA to set tougher greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars than those issued by the federal government.

Under Section 177 of the same bedrock environmental law, 13 states and the District of Columbia have chosen to adopt California’s standards, representing more than 40% of all cars sold in the country.

President Trump threw a wrench into those plans when he directed EPA to revoke California’s Clean Air Act waiver as part of his broader rollback of the clean car standards established by President Obama.

But Biden will likely direct EPA to restore the waiver soon after his inauguration on Jan. 20 — clearing the way for California and so-called Section 177 states to blaze the trail for clean cars once again.

“You could see significant progress through a California waiver request and then the piggybacking on California standards by Section 177 states,” said Jack Lienke, regulatory policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity and an adjunct professor at NYU School of Law.

“The current cohort of states counts for over a third of the national vehicles market. So that’s not an insignificant portion of the market,” Lienke said.

Newsom order

Ever since Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, California has led the country in pioneering green policies, from the first energy efficiency standards for appliances to the first economywide cap-and-trade program.

The most recent groundbreaking step came in September, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued an executive order banning sales of new gasoline-powered cars in the state after 2035 (E&E News PM, Sept. 23).

In doing so, Newsom went further than Biden, who has not set a date for phasing out sales of gas cars nationwide (Climatewire, Oct. 29).

The governor’s executive order instructs the California Air Resources Board to craft regulations requiring 100% zero-emission car sales within 15 years.

Lienke said CARB will likely implement the order through an update to its existing zero-emission vehicle program, which is authorized by the Clean Air Act waiver.

“The existing ZEV program requires 22% of vehicles [sold] to be zero-emission by 2025 in California. So this would presumably be ramping up to 100% by 2035,” he said.

Jonathan Adler, director of the environmental law center at Case Western Reserve University, said the board’s regulations will likely land in court.

A trade association for automakers or auto dealers could file a lawsuit alleging that the new rules harm their members, Adler said. Or a small or midsize oil producer could bring a complaint, given the rules’ potential impact on oil demand.

Still, the staff at CARB has experience with crafting rules that can survive legal scrutiny.

“The folks in California are smart,” Adler said. “They know to expect a challenge. And they will work to adopt a rule that is somewhat insulated from challenges.”

A spokesman for the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the powerful trade association for U.S. automakers, declined to comment on the potential for future litigation.

When Newsom issued the executive order, alliance President and CEO John Bozzella said in a statement that “neither mandates nor bans build successful markets. What builds successful markets is widespread stakeholder engagement.”

In a statement after automakers held a virtual meeting Tuesday, Bozzella pledged to work with the Biden administration to advance electrification.

“The long-term future of the auto industry is electric. We are investing hundreds of billions to develop the products that will drive this electric future, and we are committed to working collaboratively to realize the unprecedented change in infrastructure, consumer support, and grid resiliency that will be required to make our common goal a reality,” Bozzella said.

Federal leadership

Regardless of whether California steers the country toward cleaner cars, the Biden administration can still show symbolic leadership on the global stage, experts said.

Other countries are looking to phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles to meet their increasingly aggressive climate targets.

The United Kingdom will ban the sale of new gas and diesel cars by 2030 — a decade earlier than its previous commitment, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last month.

China plans to gradually eliminate non-hybrid gas cars in the next 15 years, aiming for 75% of gas cars to be hybrids by 2030, and 100% by 2035.

Biden will have an opportunity to phase out gas cars on American soil when he instructs EPA and the Department of Transportation to set new clean car standards.

The standards could be so stringent that only zero-emission vehicles could comply by 2030 or 2035 (Climatewire, Nov. 30).

That would send a “strong signal” to other countries that the United States is serious about tackling climate change, said Carlson of UCLA Law.

“It would be symbolically really important on the climate front for the world’s second-biggest emitter — and biggest emitter historically — to be phasing out the internal combustion engine,” she said.