The Washington state Legislature this week considered a proposal that would make a motorhead choke on his energy drink: refusing to register any new car that runs on gasoline, within a decade from now.
The bill failed to advance, but the idea behind it has more momentum than it might seem.
Outright bans of gas-powered cars have been proposed not just in Washington and California, but in some form by most Democratic presidential hopefuls as integral to their strategies on climate change. Thirteen countries are in various stages of making it law, including Canada, France and the United Kingdom.
The appeal for advocates is the unequivocal message it sends to automakers: Sell electric cars or sell nothing. Many climate change activists believe that today’s policies to encourage EVs, like tax incentives and rebates, aren’t moving people out of gas cars fast enough to head off the slow-moving disaster of climate change.
But in the United States, where Americans have an emotional connection to both their cars and the notion of freedom, it carries risks.
"There’s a lot of prospects for blowback," said Sanya Carley, an energy policy expert at Indiana University who studies drivers’ attitudes toward electric vehicles.
"Personal vehicles are near and dear to their hearts. They spend a lot of time there, and it’s kind of a mobile extension of their home," she said. "For most people, [a ban] could be really problematic."
Yet the prospect of deleting the gas tank keeps coming up on the Democratic presidential trail.
It entered the national conversation in May, when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made a ban on internal-combustion engines by 2030 a plank of his presidential bid.
Inslee has doggedly pursued climate initiatives in his state, with an uneven record of passage. His presidential self-positioning as "the climate candidate" influenced the course of other campaigns, said Carley.
"He has, in my opinion, led the Democratic Party with some of their stances on energy and climate," she said. "Jay has been really successful and is pushing things a little further every year."
Other campaigns appeared to be listening. In the following months, similar proposals emerged, although without specifically saying how or using the freighted word "ban."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and businessman Andrew Yang said they wanted only electric cars being sold by 2030. A few proposed 2035, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Others, including former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) seek the same goal but have set no date.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is the only candidate to avoid the topic in her position papers.
For many supporters of the all-electric idea, it suffices to increase investment through policies such as grants and vehicle trade-in programs.
"Concerns of cost and whether there will be access to a charging station have prevented many people from being able to choose this low-carbon option. We are going to change that," Sanders says in his campaign platform.
A marker in the Northwest
Although the idea of a gas car ban might seem far-fetched, it’s not in deep-blue Washington. While presidential candidates have been vague, the bill before the state House of Representatives was specific.
"We’re trying to create momentum, normalize the idea, popularize the idea," said Matthew Metz.
Metz is the founder of Coltura, an organization based in Seattle that nearly singlehandedly brought the idea from the fringes to the mainstream in Washington state. He spoke while driving to a hearing Monday of the state’s House of Representatives Transportation Committee.
This "will be the first hearing on such a bill, basically, ever. We’re expecting it’s going to bring out the issues like we never have. Can we live without gas-powered vehicles? Is that possible?" he asked this week.
The Washington bill, HB 2515, set a deadline of 2030. In that year, the state’s Department of Licensing would refuse to register any light-duty car or truck with an internal-combustion engine, including hybrids. Anyone with a vehicle with an internal-combustion engine bought prior to 2030 could still drive it.
Washington’s environmental ethic is part of its impetus to wean itself off gas cars. But the energy mix is also a factor. In a state that largely runs on hydropower dams and has the lowest carbon emissions of any state, the next biggest source of emissions is vehicle tailpipes.
Indeed, a study commissioned by Inslee found that for the state to meet its aggressive carbon goals — at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 — it "must shift from internal combustion engine (gasoline) vehicles to a fleet almost entirely composed of electric vehicles."
And the governor would likely sign such a bill. Inslee injected the ban into the national conversation last year by making it part of his long-shot presidential campaign.
The ban bill was co-sponsored by eight committee heads in the lower chamber, which, like the state Senate, has a solid Democratic majority.
The proposal didn’t make it to a vote, not for lack of interest, but because it missed a cutoff for consideration in the Legislature’s brief calendar. Its sponsor believes it will be back.
"I really think that if Boris Johnson can do this, then so can we," said Rep. Nicole Macri (D), a lower-house representative from Seattle who brought the bill.
She was referring to the prime minister of the United Kingdom, who last week said he would move up the timeline for the nation’s coming ban on gas, diesel and hybrid cars. Previously it had been 2040; now Johnson is targeting 2035.
Reactions to Washington’s combustion ban, even in its budding stage, suggest that crossing off an entire platform is likely to find enemies.
One came from Scotty Anderson, a computer programmer who lives on the far eastern side of the state. Washington has a stark political divide. The western side of the Cascade Range, where Seattle is, is populous, urban and liberal; the east side is rural and conservative.
In an op-ed in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Anderson pointed out that electric vehicles — the only type of car that would meet the ban’s demands — currently have shorter range than gas cars, and it gets shorter in the freezing winters of the east. He added that the charging stations to fuel electric cars barely exist in the area.
"Do you think that within 10 years this state, or any state, will be ready to swear off the internal combustion engine in favor of an all electric vehicle fleet?" he concluded. "At least we live close to Idaho. Just sayin’."
The sponsors of Washington’s ban bill all represent the other, western side of the state.
Can a global movement happen here?
Nixing the internal-combustion engine is becoming a reality around the world.
At least 13 countries have either proposed or started implementing such bans, as well as dozens of localities.
Norway’s deadline is soonest, as it has until 2025 to forbid the sale of cars using fossil fuels. A coalition of 11 European countries, led by Denmark, are asking the European Union for permission to make such pledges binding.
Some proposals, like Canada’s, are still vague commitments.
But Nic Lutsey, director of the electric vehicle program at the International Council on Clean Transportation, pointed out that at least three governments are turning such bans into reality: the Chinese province of Hainan, the nation of France and, coincidentally, the Canadian province of British Columbia, which is Washington state’s neighbor.
While a ban taking hold in one state would be unlikely to expand nationally, said Indiana University’s Carley, it might spread piecemeal like the zero-emissions vehicle standard that was established in California. The ZEV mandate, as it’s known, has been adopted by multiple states, most in the Northeast.
Others have said that gasoline car bans likely will have to be part of the equation to achieve an all-electric transportation system by midcentury, at least in some locations.
"At some point, to get to this goal, you might need to just outright ban the internal-combustion engine on the streets" of Boston, said Michael Walsh, co-author and senior research scientist at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. Last year, the city was weighing a gas car ban (Energywire, May 22, 2019).
Anup Bandivadekar, a program director on the International Council on Clean Transportation, noted that several U.S. cities have already signed a declaration for fossil fuel-free streets. Because transportation is usually one of the largest greenhouse gas sources for cities, it should not be surprising that other cities may consider fossil fuel bans in the coming years, as well, he said.
"That said, I really don’t know what the near- to mid-term prospects for such a policy are in the United States," he said. "Even if such a package were to be adopted in a U.S. city or state, I’d presume that the implementation of any such ‘ban’ would take place over a fairly long period of time. The main story is that an inevitable transition to zero-emissions mobility has already begun."
Opponents like Tom Pyle, president of the nonprofit American Energy Alliance (AEA), dismissed proposals pushing for a ban on gas cars, calling it rhetoric that ignores the many challenges EVs face in scaling up to meet growing demand. Pyle pointed to opposition surrounding rare earth minerals, the lack of infrastructure for EVs and customer preference for more affordable internal-combustion vehicles. AEA has received millions of dollars from groups affiliated with the fossil fuel industry and is opposed to EV subsidies.
"If you look at it from a purely technical, economic and realistic standpoint, these are pipe dreams, it’s messaging," he said. "They’re aspiration and, frankly, stupid."
In a statement, American Petroleum Institute spokesman Scott Lauermann said: "The internal combustion engine has driven global movement for more than a century and by all indication will continue to do so for decades to come. In fact, projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show gasoline-powered vehicles will account for more than 80% of new vehicle sales in 2050. Policymakers should be focused on fostering innovation in the transportation sector — not choosing which technologies consumers are offered."
A ‘powerful message’
Outside Washington, the only state to attempt to ban the gas tank has been California.
In 2017, a San Francisco assemblyman, Phil Ting (D), proposed a bill banning gas cars by 2040, but it failed. The following session, he proposed funding to study the idea but also didn’t get the votes.
Finally, Ting used his role as chair of the Assembly’s Budget Committee to appropriate $1.5 million to have the state EPA study how to get to zero-carbon transportation.
That study has not yet been completed, and until it is Ting won’t propose the bill again, said his spokeswoman, Nannette Miranda.
One of the principal opponents in California then — and in Washington now — is the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. and Marathon Petroleum Corp.
"The window to make these kind of changes would be very difficult and would come at significant cost to consumers," said Kevin Slagle, a WSPA spokesman.
"It’s a bill that chooses winners. It chooses EVs, it doesn’t choose hybrids or gas engines, which are so much cleaner now than they were a few years ago," he added.
Despite a string of failures, leaders of the no-gas-engine contingent aren’t close to giving up.
"We’re trying to make as much progress as possible this year," said Coltura’s Metz, whose lobbying paved the way to the Washington bill. "Getting it as far as we can sends a powerful message to a lot of players."
Reporters Christa Marshall, Hannah Northey and David Iaconangelo contributed.