Electric vehicle rule emerges as political tightrope for Biden

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As it prepares to issue a policy shifting the U.S. toward greater electric vehicle adoption, the Biden administration finds itself between its key labor and climate constituencies ahead of what’s shaping up to be a tough general election.

The car pollution rule, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is currently under White House review and is scheduled to be finalized next month — though it could come out later.

However, over the weekend, multiple news outlets reported that a final version of the rule may require automakers to make a smaller portion of their fleet electric in the near-term than a proposed version did.

If the administration makes this change, it is likely to please union workers, especially in the critical swing state of Michigan, where more than 120,000 people are currently employed in car manufacturing.

But it risks alienating the part of President Biden’s base that is concerned about climate change — and that has been advocating for rules that significantly push the nation toward climate-friendly vehicles.

The proposed rule initially put forward by the EPA would be expected to ratchet up the share of electric vehicles on the market annually. The agency projects that for model year 2027, 36 percent of new vehicle sales would be electric. In 2028, that number would be 45 percent, rising to 55 percent in 2029 and 60 percent in 2030.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has said it wants to make sure jobs and wages are protected during the transition to electric vehicles, but that it does not oppose such a shift overall.

Nevertheless, in public comments on the EPA’s proposal last year, the union called for either changes to the rule or greater safeguards for workers.

“Absent sufficient safeguards incorporated into the rule or revisions to the proposed standards, the burden of compliance is poised to fall heaviest on the workers who currently build [internal combustion engine] vehicles and those who will build [zero emission vehicles] in the future,” it said last year.

“The proposed standards’ uncertain disruption to [internal combustion engine] jobs and the uncertain quality of new EV jobs must be addressed as the EPA works to finalize the rule,” it added.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing major car companies, also opposed the rule, saying in its own public comment that the proposed standard is “neither reasonable nor achievable in the timeframe covered.”

It instead called for a standard mandating 40 percent to 50 percent of new sales being electric in 2030.

David Foster, who worked on environment and economic development issues in the Obama administration, warned that if the rule requires too big of a shift, it could have negative political implications for the Biden administration.

“You take a hard look at how consumers are demanding specific products, and what you really want is to provide [an] undertow of regulatory activity that supports the transition but doesn’t mandate it,” he said.

Foster, who is now a distinguished associate at the Energy Futures Initiative, said going too far could have a “very negative electoral outcome.”

The UAW went on strike last year amid concerns including pay parity between workers at electric car and gas-powered car plants. Ultimately, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis agreed to include EV battery jobs under their general contracts with the union, and the UAW has recently turned its focus to nonunion employers, including EV-makers such as Tesla.

Biden expressed support for the then-striking autoworkers last year — and ultimately won the union’s 2024 endorsement. However, a union source told The Hill prior to that endorsement that despite endorsing Biden in 2020, around a third of its members who voted in 2020 supported former President Trump.

Biden has a complicated path to victory in Michigan, particularly as he faces pushback in the state over his handling of the war in Gaza.

“If we’re talking about people who might change their mind based on auto emissions or we’re talking about people who might change their mind on Gaza, the total universe of those people might be small,” Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said.

“But we’re talking about an election that’s gonna be decided by a small amount in a few key states, so those small numbers of people can have a pretty big outsized influence,” said Vale, who previously worked in communications at the AFL-CIO union federation.

Climate advocates, meanwhile, have pushed back on the reported change — which, according to The New York Times, would not require a sharp spike in EV sales until after 2030 — saying strong rules are important for mitigating climate change and reducing air pollution.

“There would be severe consequences for the environment, for protecting public health, improving air quality and ensuring that millions of Americans are able to benefit from the savings that driving cleaner cars would result [in],” said Katherine García, director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All Campaign.

Biden signed historic investments in combating climate change into law through the Inflation Reduction Act and has sought generally to tighten climate regulations. However, he has also received criticism from climate advocates over some moves, including the approval of the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.

The president has made the case throughout his presidency that efforts to combat climate change can go hand in hand with workers’ interests — including when it comes to electric vehicles.

Regardless of the outcome of this specific rule, Vale said he believes Biden has generally struck a good balance between labor and climate interests.

“You see lots of labor support for him and you see lots of environmental support for him, and that’s been a pretty consistent pattern,” Vale said.

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