Following California’s lead, EPA proposes national standards to ramp up electric cars

An electric vehicle charging station in Burlingame. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
An electric vehicle charging station in Burlingame. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

By Nadia Lopez 
CalMatters Environment Writer 

Closely mirroring California’s landmark mandate, the Biden administration on Wednesday proposed new greenhouse gas emission standards that will scale up sales of electric cars and trucks nationwide. 

If enacted, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed standards would be among the most stringent and aggressive measures the federal agency has ever taken to slash planet-warming tailpipe pollution, clean up dirty air and tackle climate change.  

“We have reestablished the United States as a leader in the clean transportation future,” Ali Zaidi, deputy national climate advisor to President Joe Biden, said Tuesday. “This is a moment of transformation.”  

The proposed regulation comes almost eight months after California set its own, more aggressive standards mandating sales of electric cars. 

Unlike California’s mandate, the EPA standards would not require that zero-emission vehicles make up a percentage of sales. Rather, the total fleet that an automaker sells each year would have to comply with an overall emissions standard, forcing them to produce enough electric vehicles to avoid surpassing it. 

EPA officials calculate that their proposal would require between 54% and 60% of sales of 2030 models and 67% of 2032 models to be zero-emissions. In comparison, the California mandate, adopted last August by the Air Resources Board, requires 35% of new 2026 cars sold in California to be zero-emissions, increasing to 68% in 2030, until reaching 100% in 2035. 

About 19% of new cars sold in California last year were zero-emissions. 

“The California Air Resources Board looks forward to providing comments on the proposal and working with the U.S. EPA to finalize the strongest rules possible as we pave the way together for continued progress on our efforts to improve air quality and reduce the impacts of climate change in California and beyond,” air board Chair Liane Randolph said in a statement. 

California has aggressively cleaned up car and truck exhaust with its own emissions standards for more than half a century, and it has been leading the way in recent years in electrifying cars. 

The EPA’s new standards would have no effect on California car sales, since the state has authority under the 1970 federal Clean Air Act to enact its own emission standards because of its severe air pollution. At least 17 states have pledged to enact California’s standards rather than EPA’s. But a nationwide standard will help clean California’s air and cut greenhouse gases by regulating emissions of cars purchased in other states. 

The auto industry is already moving to meet California’s requirements by producing more electric vehicles. General Motors, for example, had already pledged to go fully electric by 2035. 

But auto manufacturers say they’re being pushed too fast to adhere to these sweeping new mandates.  

“The vehicles are in production and automakers are committed to making this shift,” said John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents the auto industry. “The question isn’t whether it can be done, it’s how fast it can be done and how fast will depend almost exclusively on having the right policies and market conditions in place to achieve the shared goal of a net zero carbon automotive future.” 

Charging availability and access to critical minerals for batteries raise serious questions about the ability to meet the requirements, Bozella said. 

California faces a daunting task to electrify all cars because of the comparatively high costs, inadequate charging facilities and other obstacles for low-income residents. A CalMatters analysis shows that communities with mostly white and Asian, college-educated and high-income residents have the state’s highest concentrations of electric cars. And most are concentrated in Silicon Valley cities and affluent coastal areas of Los Angeles and Orange counties. 

In stark contrast, California ZIP codes with the largest percentages of Latino and Black residents have extremely low proportions of electric cars. In the 20 California ZIP codes where Latinos make up more than 95% of the population — including parts of Kings, Tulare, Fresno, Riverside and Imperial counties — between zero and 1% of cars are electric. And 17 of the 20 communities with the highest percentage of Black residents have between zero and 2.6% electric cars.  

Concerns also have been raised about whether California’s electric grid can handle the ramp-up of electric cars while avoiding brownouts. Despite expecting 12.5 million electric cars by 2035, California officials insist that the grid can provide enough electricity. But that’s based on multiple assumptions — including building solar and wind at almost five times the pace of the past decade — that may not be realistic. 

The average price of an electric car as of February was $58,385 — about $9,600 more than the average car — although it dropped from about $65,000 last year. Lower-end fully electric cars start around $27,500.  

Medium and heavy-duty trucks would also be regulated by the EPA’s new standards. Limits for medium-duty trucks would require an estimated 46% of new 2032 models sold nationwide to be zero-emissions. California also is proposing to ramp up electrification of medium and heavy-duty trucks under a plan coming before the air board later this month. 

The EPA’s proposed rules build on existing federal standards for 2023 to 2026 model years. 

Over the past eight years, automakers have invested more than $120 billion in electric vehicle production and battery manufacturing facilities across the U.S, according to a report from the Environmental Defense Fund released in March. Federal dollars have largely helped fund these investments: At least 42% have occurred in the past six months due to incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act.  

“We have already seen the market moving in really powerful ways in response to the incentives that are included in the Inflation Reduction Act, in response to California’s leadership and changes in consumer demand,” said Peter Zalzal, associate vice president for clean air strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund. “This is an opportunity to build from California’s leadership and to ensure that communities all around the country benefit from zero-emitting solutions in terms of health and air quality benefits.”  

Matt Peterson, CEO of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a business group that is working to get 80% of cars sold in Los Angeles County to be electric by 2028, said their effort is “now given big tailwinds by the EPA’s new rules.” 

The proposed rules extend beyond Biden’s goal for half of all new vehicle sales to be electric by 2030, Zaidi said. 

Through 2055, federal officials estimate the proposed standards could eliminate about 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from being spewed into the atmosphere — equivalent to more than twice the nation’s total carbon emissions in 2022.  

“In every corner of this country, Americans are seeing and feeling the impacts (of climate change) up close,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. “The stakes could not be higher. We must continue to act with haste and ambition to confront the climate crisis.” 

The EPA will accept public comments on its proposal for 60 days, then issue its final regulation. 

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