‘This will be something that people see and feel’: What to expect from Biden’s clean car push

By Mike Lee, Jean Chemnick | 03/20/2024 06:49 AM EDT

The Biden administration is launching its most aggressive regulation to stem tailpipe pollution.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan is expected to announce a clean car rule Wednesday. Andrew Harnik/AP

The Biden administration is unleashing a flurry of regulatory actions that aims to shift the nation toward electric vehicles — with the biggest rule coming Wednesday to set strict limits on climate pollution from passenger cars.

The regulation being announced by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, as POLITICO’s E&E News reported last week, would slash greenhouse gases from cars and light trucks in half, while pushing to have electric vehicles make up about two-thirds of new passenger vehicle sales by 2032.

It’s the highest-profile rule of four regulations being released in the coming weeks to overhaul the transportation sector, the nation’s largest source of climate pollution.


It marks the “single most important climate regulation in the history of the country,” said Margo Oge, a former EPA official who spoke to reporters on a call organized by the Environmental Defense Fund.

The transportation rules come as President Joe Biden tries to shed historically low approval ratings as he plunges into a reelection race by trying to convince voters that his policies can create jobs and help tame rapidly rising global temperatures. His presumptive opponent, former President Donald Trump, has pounced on Biden’s push for electric vehicles with violent depictions of a “bloodbath,” in an effort to sway voters in Michigan and other swing states.

EPA is also working on a similar rule for heavy trucks. The Department of Transportation is finishing fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks that run on gasoline. And on Tuesday the Department of Energy released new calculations that determine how electric vehicles are counted in the fuel economy standards — in a move that could make the national car fleet cleaner.

Trump calls Biden’s EV push a ‘ridiculous crusade’

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Biden administration allies are hoping the Wednesday car rule touches Americans — and voters — on a personal level. It stands to not only slash climate pollution but also create jobs in car and battery factories, the administration says. The White House hopes those messages will be reinforced by every electric vehicle that passes by on the road.

“This will be something that people see and feel,” said Matthew Davis, vice president of federal policy at the League of Conservation Voters.

Yet the car rule faces political and legal dangers. If Trump is elected in November, he could roll back Biden’s actions, which he has called an “EV mandate.”

The rule is almost certain to be challenged in court and wind up before a conservative Supreme Court. Officials in several Republican-controlled states have already hinted that they’ll ask the courts to consider whether the tailpipe rule constitutes a “major question,” referring to a newly ascendant legal theory that says only Congress can set the rules for broad sections of the economy.

To safeguard the rule, federal agencies are racing to enact regulations in case Republicans take control of Congress in the fall. A new Congress can roll back regulations completed within the last 60 legislative days of a session — and the Biden administration is closely watching the clock.

Environmental and public health groups applaud the EPA for making changes to the car rule to help it survive some of the challenges. The rule, for example, doesn’t specify what kind of cars and trucks companies have to build. Instead it is expected to set a decreasing limit on carbon dioxide and other pollutants for vehicles built in model years 2027 through 2032.

The original proposal that the EPA unveiled last spring would have required companies to cut emissions steadily each year. But the White House budget office changed the timeline so the steepest cuts would happen after 2030.

That move was widely seen as an effort to shore up election-year support in Michigan and other swing states. It also shows that the administration is willing to compromise with the car industry, which could help the plan pass muster in court, said Chris Harto, a senior analyst at Consumer Reports.

“They seem to be taking the durability of these rules very seriously,” he said.

Despite the revisions,the rule would still cut carbon dioxide emissions from personal vehicles 52 percent by 2032, the same level included in the original plan. Altogether, the rule would prevent 7.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution by 2055 compared to 7.3 billion tons in the original plan, the administration said. The regulation would also cut other hazardous pollutants from cars that disproportionately affect low-income residents and people of color.

The climate impact will depend on whether carmakers build more electric vehicles in the rule’s final few years, said Ben King, an associate director at the Rhodium Group, which analyzes government climate programs. Several analysts and researchers, including Rhodium, have already said the nation will need to enact stricter regulations to meet the Biden administration’s goal of zeroing out carbon emissions by 2050.

“If what this does is build a more sustainable model for the auto industry — it doesn’t hurt in the long run all that much,” King said.

Sara Baldwin, who leads electrification policy at the think tank Energy Innovation, said that besides cutting greenhouse gases, the rule would also improve air quality and allow U.S. manufacturers to keep pace with foreign competitors.

“Several of the manufacturers have voiced their desire to have a bit more time to ramp up their manufacturing capabilities and train their workforce on electric vehicles,” she said. “EPA is, I’m sure, grappling with how to strike that balance.”

The car industry said it was happy with the changes in the car rule’s timeline.

“Moderating the pace of EV adoption in 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030 would be the right call because it prioritizes more reasonable and achievable electrification targets in the next few (very critical) years,” John Bozzella, chief executive officer of the Alliance of Automotive Innovation, said in a blog post.

But it’s important that all the federal regulations — the car rule, truck rule, fuel economy standards and the equivalency standard for EVs — work together, he said.

“Highly unlikely we’ll have the full picture for all three federal agency tailpipe regulations this month,” Bozzella wrote.

Meanwhile, trucking companies are saying the EPA plan is unworkable.

The agency predicts that 40 percent of trucks would be powered by batteries or fuel cells under the rule. The Clean Freight Coalition released a report Tuesday that argued the rule would impose hundreds of billions of dollars in new costs on the industry — and up to $1 trillion including associated costs like upgrades to the electric grid.

Chris Spear, the chief executive officer of the American Trucking Associations, said the administration should encourage plug-in hybrid trucks, biofuels and other alternatives.

“Going all in on electric at this pace could be catastrophic, not just for our industry, but for the economy,” he said.

The Biden administration has said the rules will boost the economy, particularly manufacturing. The climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act created tens of billions of dollars in tax credits for battery-makers and EV buyers. Since then, companies have announced $188 billion in clean vehicle plants, projected to create about 195,000 jobs, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund.

Consumers bought more than 1 million EVs in 2023, accounting for 9 percent of new car sales.

And the switch to electric vehicles would also cut other types of pollution from cars, such as nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons. Those emissions disproportionately affect low-income, Black and Hispanic communities in the U.S., causing high rates of asthma and premature deaths, said Katherine Garcia, who works on clean transportation for the Sierra Club.

“It’s extremely important that EPA finalized strong standards for the communities that are most impacted,” Garcia said.