Editorial: Gov. Pritzker, don’t follow California in banning gas-powered car sales

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Taking aim at climate change, California last month announced plans to phase out the sale of new, gasoline-powered vehicles. As of 2035, the Golden State will allow only electric vehicles (EVs) to be sold new, though used-car sales will remain unrestricted.

Another 17 states that in the past have followed California’s vehicle standards are mulling whether to adopt the same rules. Several, including New York, have said they’re on board.

Illinois wisely is taking a more cautious approach — so far.

Speaking to farmers last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he declined an offer to sign on to the California pact, and expects the transition away from gas-powered vehicles to be gradual: “Illinois is not going to snap its fingers and require you to go buy an electric vehicle tomorrow,” he told them, according to the Capitol Fax newsletter.

Let’s hope the governor stays cautious.

Reducing carbon emissions is a critical priority, but policymakers need to give the marketplace room to work out a reasonable timetable. Government has a poor track record of peering into the future to determine which technologies will work out best, while at the same time it excels at bringing about unintended consequences.

For an example, look no further than California. In the same week that Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the ban on new liquid-fueled vehicle sales in 2035, a heat wave prompted residents to crank up their air conditioning, causing a power emergency. Newsom was forced to ask that consumers reduce electricity demand by, among other steps, unplugging their EVs.

If battery-operated vehicles become the norm, electrical grids from coast-to-coast will need to be upgraded to meet the new demand. EV chargers will need to be installed by the thousands in public areas nationwide, and many more in private homes.

And who is going to produce the juice? In another sign of conflicting government priorities, California is working with Oregon to help migrating salmon on the Klamath River by tearing down four massive hydroelectric dams. If electric utilities are expected to participate in a build out of EV charging infrastructure while increasing their output, and do it all in short order, rest assured that rates will need to rise.

Another practical impediment is battery technology. The lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles today draw on materials that are dirty to process and, in some cases, produced in unstable parts of the globe. For EVs to flourish, they need lighter-weight batteries that use less nickel, cobalt and lithium, and can be recycled much more readily.

As a practical matter, many livelihoods are riding on the transition to battery-operated cars. The entrenched interests at stake include everyone involved in keeping America gassed up, from convenience stores to neighborhood mechanics to the oil industry.

Illinois farmers are on the front lines too. The federal program requiring oil refiners to dilute their gasoline with ethanol uses about 40% of the U.S. corn crop. That pumps a fortune into farmers’ pockets, while keeping food prices higher than they would be without the subsidy. Farmers are understandably wary of the EV threat to their lucrative program.

Predictably, government has addressed industry concerns by throwing money at them. This year’s Inflation Reduction Act, for instance, includes funds for building EV charging stations and expanded tax credits for EV purchases, plus money to electrify trucks and buses, most notably postal-service delivery vans.

Illinois has a generous rebate program, among other initiatives aimed at promoting use of the vehicles and, importantly, attracting EV-related businesses to the state. Given that many car manufacturers are racing to go electric, it makes sense for Illinois to roll out the economic development welcome mat even as it remains prudently cautious about banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars.

So far, the massive EV push is missing the most important element: winning over the independent-minded American motorist. Most consumers continue to choose gas-powered vehicles over electric.

Price is a big factor. Even after government incentives, new EVs still cost more than comparable vehicles with internal-combustion engines, though many studies show they are cheaper to operate in the long run. Consumers also cite “range anxiety,” the fear that batteries will run down without charging stations at hand, especially on long road trips, potentially stranding them in their spiffy new electric cars.

The industry can overcome those justifiable concerns. In time, EVs will become more affordable, battery technology will improve, creative innovations will ease the transition and skeptical motorists will be won over as their friends and neighbors join the electric party.

But those steps will take time, and Illinois officials will regret it if they eliminate consumer choice before the Illinois consumer is ready.

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