Biden unveils push to send electric car sales into overdrive

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President Joe Biden’s climate agenda is finally showing some teeth.

After more than a year of offering incentives for industries to invest in clean energy, the Biden administration on Wednesday announced what it called the most ambitious auto pollution rules in history, with the aim of accelerating automakers’ shift to electric vehicles.

The standards could result in battery-powered cars and trucks making up two-thirds of new light-vehicle sales by 2032, the Environmental Protection Agency said, while reducing oil imports, saving motorists thousands of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs, lessening air pollution deaths, and cutting the greenhouse gas pollution that’s warming the planet.

This is, as President Joe Biden said in a different context, a big f--ing deal. His administration wants to change the way Americans have traveled the roads for more than a century. But by pushing the industry to make the transition faster, Biden could risk a backlash from unwilling consumers, complicate questions about China’s dominance of electric vehicle supplies, and escalate his administration’s legal fight with the oil industry and GOP governors who oppose his efforts to phase out internal combustion engines.

On the plus side for Biden, though, electric vehicle sales are already rising. And carmakers, who are investing big money in going electric, have defended the EPA’s previous pollution rules in federal court.

"Whether you measure today's announcement by the dollars saved or the gallons reduced or the pollution that will no longer be pumped into the air, this is a win for the American people," White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi told reporters on Tuesday.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during an appearance Wednesday that he's confident automakers can meet the steep new mandates, despite public misgivings from industry groups.

“When I look at the projections that many in the automobile industry have made, this is the future,” he said. “The consumer demand is there. The markets are enabling it. The technologies are enabling it.”

Still, even some supporters of the president’s climate policies say they worry about a host of complications, including consumers’ ability to afford the $50,000-and-up price of many electric vehicles now on the market. Biden’s signature climate law offers $7,500 tax breaks to lessen the sticker shock, but the Treasury Department announced rules just two weeks ago that will make those credits more difficult to get.

Under the EPA proposal unveiled Wednesday, carbon dioxide emissions for new cars and light trucks would need to fall by 49 percent on average from 2027 to 2032. The agency is also proposing tightened standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, with the latter including dump trucks, school buses and tractor-trailers.

“Everybody cares about global warming,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from the auto industry’s home base of Michigan. But she added, “I'm hearing from too many people in this country — I mean, strong Democrats — that they can't afford an electric vehicle.”

Other obstacles to getting more motorists to go electric include the patchy availability of charging stations and questions about whether the new breed of cars and trucks will be made in the U.S., with American-sourced parts and minerals, or would further dependence on China.

John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents leading U.S. automakers, said the industry’s ability to meet the targets depends on factors outside its control.

“A lot has to go right for this massive — and unprecedented — change in our automotive market and industrial base to succeed,” he wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

Some Republicans were caustic, including Florida Rep. Kat Cammack, who called the proposal “another clueless harebrained plan that actually has no basis in reality.”

“That seems to be the joke of the Biden administration — one of many, in fact — where they say, ‘Oh, you are concerned about rising gas prices, oh, you peasant, go out and buy an electric vehicle that costs $80,000,’” Cammack told Fox Business on Monday. “It’s absolutely absurd how out of touch this administration truly is.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) told POLITICO in a statement that the administration's proposed rule “made clear it wants to decide for Americans what kinds of cars and trucks we are allowed to buy, lease, and drive.”

“These misguided emissions standards were made without considering the supply chain challenges American automakers are still facing, the lack of sufficiently operational electric vehicle charging infrastructure, or the fact that it takes nearly a decade to permit a mine to extract the minerals needed to make electric vehicles, forcing businesses to look to China for these raw materials,” Capito said.

Environmental groups and automakers that specialize in electric vehicles, such as Tesla and Rivian, have urged the administration to go big, saying Biden should seize the opportunity to lessen the country’s largest source of greenhouse gases — the transportation sector.

“These regulations will reflect, in my view, the single most important regulatory initiative by the Biden administration to combat climate change," said Margo Oge, a former head of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, at a briefing Tuesday organized by the Environmental Defense Fund. "The administration is going to make history if indeed, at the end of the day, they finalize these ambitious standards.”

Matthew Davis, senior director of government relations with the League of Conservation Voters, said the administration should use the EPA rule to “drive innovation” — building on the electric vehicle incentives in Biden’s infrastructure and climate laws, which have already inspired investments in manufacturing and charging projects.

“If these rules aren’t strong enough, they won’t send a strong additional message to the federal investments message that already has been sent,” Davis said. And that could frustrate the Biden administration’s hopes of having electric vehicles account for half of all new car and truck sales by 2030.

Electric vehicles made up about 5.6 percent of cars and trucks sold in 2022, up from 1.8 percent just two years earlier — but still not nearly enough to achieve the large emissions reductions that scientists say are needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, according to data from S&P Global Mobility cited by POLITICO’s E&E News.

A majority of Americans are at least open to buying an electric vehicle, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. Twelve percent of respondents said they are “seriously considering” buying an electric vehicle and another 43 percent said they might consider it in the future, versus 41 percent who “unequivocally say they would not.” Four percent of respondents already owned one.

Yet the interest is highly partisan: 76 percent of Democrats were either seriously or somewhat considering purchasing an electric vehicle, while 71 percent of Republicans said they would not buy one, the polling firm found.

EPA’s new rules will push automakers toward electric vehicles regardless, said Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst at the consulting firm Gartner. "These rules would really just take away any sort of safety net or ability to turn back," he told E&E News.

Already the auto industry, which has eagerly welcomed a variety of tax credits for manufacturing and selling electric vehicles, is deflecting blame in case it can’t meet the standards.

The move toward electric vehicles "requires a massive, 100-year change to the U.S. industrial base and the way Americans drive," the Alliance for Automotive Innovation wrote in a memo issued last week. "A clear-eyed assessment of market readiness is required. The answer on rule feasibility is: It depends."

“It’s a difficult dance,” said Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst for the auto intelligence service at S&P Global Mobility. “In order to have a more fuel efficient vehicle, it will be more expensive. It will be more expensive to produce; it will be more expensive to buy. It just goes with the territory. And that’s at the core of the conundrum.”

Still, she said, Europe and China have long had stricter regulations than the United States, so manufacturers already have some practice conforming to higher fuel economy standards.

The Republican attack line has already become clear, with some accusing the Biden administration of attempts to social-engineer people out of their pickup trucks and into “some puny electric car,” as Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.) tweeted on Monday.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) called the EPA proposal “yet another draconian rule from the Biden” administration and invoked this year’s partisan dust-up about gas stoves, which one federal regulator had suggested banning. (Biden has opposed a stove ban.)

Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) last month chastised the EPA for its efforts to boost electric vehicles, arguing that they strain the grid and are impractical for people like his wife, who he said drives 5,000 miles per month taking their children to school from rural areas.

“I don’t want ‘California’ rules,” Mullin said, referring to that state’s electric vehicle mandates. “I don’t want them to play a role in Oklahoma. I want affordable and reliable energy.”

The gas stoves scuffle could seem tame compared with an all-out feud over what’s in tens of millions of Americans’ driveways. The Obama administration took a GOP strafing over policies aimed at getting people out of their cars in favor of bikes, walking and transit — outrage that kept the conservative blogosphere buzzing for months. (Writing for Newsweek at the time, George Will dubbed then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the “Secretary of Behavior Modification.”)

In contrast, Biden has proclaimed himself a “car guy.” And his administration and its allies are pitching the new EPA pollution standards as an economic opportunity for the U.S. to dominate the transportation technology of the future.

A recent report from the Environmental Defense Fund and the engineering and design firm WSP USA found that automakers had announced $120 billion in electric vehicle investments since 2015, with the bulk of that money coming since the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act last year.

Much of that spending, and the jobs that come with it, is happening in red or purple states. Georgia leads the pack on announced new EV jobs, followed by Tennessee, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina.

The administration said the new standards would save the economy $850 billion to $1.6 trillion between 2027 and 2055, avoid about 20 billion barrels in oil imports, and save the average buyer of a car or light-duty truck $12,000 over the vehicle’s lifetime.

Josh Siegel, Zack Colman, Mike Lee and David Ferris contributed to this report.