Biden administration revs up plans to transition from gas-powered vehicles to EVs

A view of electric car chargers on September 23, 2020 in Corte Madera, California.
The plan requiring carmakers to sell more electric vehicles — while reducing carbon emissions from gas-powered cars — could mean fewer empty EV charging spots in the near future. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The nation’s slow transition to electric vehicles got a boost Wednesday when the Biden administration announced it had finalized the strongest-ever pollution standards for cars and light trucks.

The Environmental Protection Agency rule, which would begin taking effect with model year 2027, would require car manufacturers to increase sales of electric vehicles while cutting carbon emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said at a news conference that the rule marks the “strongest vehicle pollution technology standard ever finalized in United States history.”

“These technology standards for model years 2027 through 2032 will avoid more than 7 billion tons of carbon pollution,” Regan said. “That’s four times the total carbon pollution from [all] transportation in the year 2021. Cleaner vehicles and lower emissions mean so much to the people across this country.”

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, including in California. The new EPA standards would represent a nearly 50% reduction in average projected greenhouse gas emissions levels for light-duty vehicles and a 44% reduction for medium-duty vehicles, the agency said in a statement.

Read more: Can California pull off the epic transition to EVs? Read our coverage here

The rules are also expected to reduce health-damaging soot emissions from gas cars by more than 95% — a move that could improve air quality in cities like Los Angeles where many homes are near freeways.

In many ways, the federal rule follows the lead of California, which has been a pioneer in efforts to eliminate reliance on gas-powered cars. In 2022, regulators announced they would halt the sale of new gas cars in the state by 2035.

Twelve states and Washington, D.C., have chosen to adhere to California’s more stringent rules. Along with California, the group accounts for roughly 33% of the nation’s new car registrations, according to state officials.

American Lung Assn. President and Chief Executive Harold Wimmer applauded the Biden administration’s move as a “critical step to address climate change and reduce air pollution.” Still, Wimmer said, the EPA has more work to do to reduce emissions, particularly from heavy-duty vehicles including freight trucks and buses.

When soot, or fine particulate matter, is inhaled, the microscopic pollution not only aggravates the lungs and raises the risk of respiratory disease, but it also can travel into the bloodstream, where it can trigger stroke or heart attack.

“Trucks represent a small fraction of total on-road vehicles but generate the greatest share of harmful air pollutants,” Wimmer said. “Reducing emissions from both cars and trucks is critical to improving public health, advancing health equity and addressing climate change.”

The EPA rule does not ban vehicles with internal-combustion engines. While the rule is expected to increase electric vehicle sales nationally, car manufacturers have autonomy in deciding how to meet the reduced emission standards. They could achieve the standards by selling more hybrid cars or improving the efficiency of gas-powered engines.

The final rule also gives car manufacturers more time to phase in pollution limits than the EPA had proposed last year. Under that more ambitious plan, electric vehicles would have accounted for 67% of all new passenger cars sold in the U.S. by 2032.

John Bozzella, president and CEO of the auto manufacturing trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said that while automakers are committed to transitioning to electric vehicles, the pace at which it happens is crucial for those companies.

“Moderating the pace of EV adoption in 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030 was the right call because it prioritizes more reasonable electrification targets in the next few very critical years of the EV transition,” Bozzella said. “These adjusted EV targets — still a stretch goal — should give the market and supply chains a chance to catch up. It buys some time for more public charging to come online, and the industrial incentives and policies of the Inflation Reduction Act to do their thing.”

News of the EPA rule comes on the heels of an agreement between the California Air Resources Board and vehicle manufacturing giant Stellantis. Under the agreement, the company is to abide by state requirements that zero-emission vehicles account for a growing share of sales in California through 2030, even if the policy is challenged in the courts or by federal action.

Read more: Broken chargers, lax oversight: How California's troubled EV charging stations threaten emission goals

Zero-emission cars represent about 7.6% of vehicles sold today in the United States, up from nearly 6% in 2022 and just over 3% in 2021. They remain the fastest-growing car sales category, according to Kelley Blue Book.

In California, electric vehicle sales dropped significantly in the last half of 2023 for the first time in more than a decade, a phenomenon experts attributed in part to unreliable charging technology, higher prices for zero-emission vehicles and concerns about vehicle range. Still, California has more electric cars on its roads than any other state, with electric vehicles making up 20.1% of its new car sales.

Electric vehicle sales growth also has slowed nationally as automakers such as Ford and General Motors have cut back for the moment on EV and battery production plans.

Hertz is also pulling back on its plan to shift toward EVs. The rental car company had announced plans several years ago to buy 100,000 Teslas, but in January said it was selling its EV fleet, citing higher expenses for collisions and damage involving the vehicles.

The National Automobile Dealers Assn., which represents more than 16,000 car and truck dealerships, was among the automotive trade organizations that expressed concern over the federal requirements. The new targets, they say, don’t reflect the demand for electric vehicles.

“The EPA’s final rule remains too aggressive and far ahead of consumer demand,” Mike Stanton, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “Our experience working with consumers every day makes us highly skeptical that consumers will adopt EVs anywhere near the levels required. The charging infrastructure is not ready, the current incentives are not sufficient, and high EV prices will price out millions of consumers, particularly low-income Americans, from the new-car market.”

But environmental activists say the EPA’s move is necessary to combat climate change. Amanda Leland, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said at a news conference that the EPA rule will cut air pollution and bring more choices and savings to consumers.

“The future is electric,” she said, “built on a shared pollution-free vision grounded in economic prosperity, job growth and consumer savings. So today we continue on our journey for a better, healthier world.”

Due to its historic air pollution woes, California is the only state that can adopt its own vehicle emissions standards, with federal approval.

Last year, state air regulators adopted a rule to eventually phase out heavy-duty trucks and locomotives that burn fossil fuels. But the EPA has yet to sign off on the rule, delaying its implementation.

Set to start this January, the rule was to prohibit the registration of new gas- and diesel-fired cargo trucks that operate at California ports and rail yards. That would have effectively ensured that all new heavy-duty vehicles taking part in the state’s bustling movement of goods would be zero-emission vehicles.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.