Inside the ‘alternative’ clean car rule Biden may push

By Jean Chemnick | 02/20/2024 06:20 AM EST

A weaker version of EPA’s proposed rule would slow-roll emission reductions to give automakers more time to switch to electric vehicles.

President Joe Biden drives a Cadillac Lyriq through the showroom during a tour at the Detroit Auto Show.

President Joe Biden drives a Cadillac Lyriq through the showroom Sept. 14, 2022, during a tour at the Detroit Auto Show in Detroit. Evan Vucci/AP

Gas-powered cars would stay on the roads for longer, emitting more planet-warming pollution, if President Joe Biden makes an election-year concession to automakers and weakens EPA’s proposed tailpipe emission standards.

The rule is still under White House review, and administration staff have nine more meetings scheduled with companies, environmental groups and state air regulators who hope their testimony has a last-minute impact. But unnamed sources told The New York Times that the administration intends to finalize a rule that would give automakers more time to cut car and truck pollution.

E&E News spoke with dozens of advocates, analysts and former federal officials who said they hadn’t been briefed and assume the rule for passenger vehicles is still in flux.


“I would think the way to view it is they’re probably honing in on where they think they’re going to go, but they probably haven’t absolutely made their final decision yet,” said Jeff Alson, a former career official at EPA who worked on the first greenhouse gas rules in the Obama administration.

EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll said the agency’s tailpipe emissions limits for cars and light- and medium-duty trucks are still in the interagency review process. While he declined to comment on the final rule, Carroll said the agency is “committed to finalizing a technology standard that is readily achievable, secures reductions in dangerous air and climate pollution and ensures economic benefits for families.”

The details in the Times‘ story match most closely with “Alternative 3,” a less aggressive option EPA included when it unveiled its more stringent proposal last year. That standard would result in the same endpoint as EPA’s proposal: a 56 percent reduction in fleetwide average carbon emissions by model year 2032, compared with model year 2026.

But EPA’s draft rule front-loads those reductions, while “Alternative 3” slow-rolls them.

The EPA proposal would demand that automakers cut fleetwide averages of planet-warming pollution from new cars and trucks by more than 18 percent between model years 2026 and 2027, ramping up to more than 40 percent by model year 2029.

Alternative 3 would instead cut fleetwide average emissions by less than 12 percent between model years 2026 and 2027, and less than 30 percent by model year 2029. The steepest reductions would be reserved for the 2030s.

The rules set performance standards based on grams of carbon dioxide per mile, so they don’t mandate EV sales. But the steeper cuts in the EPA proposal assumes automakers will shift to battery-powered cars very rapidly. If the Biden administration chooses to instead finalize something like Alternative 3, automakers would not be under that same time pressure.

That would mean more gas-powered cars on the road, emitting greenhouse gases for longer. EPA’s proposal would cut emissions by an annual average of 15.3 percent in the first three years of the rule, while Alternative 3 would cut emissions by a little over 10 percent in each of those years.

That’s unlikely to please environmentalists and consumer and public health groups, who urged EPA to make its historically aggressive proposal even stronger.

Seven of those groups filed joint comments to EPA last year asking the agency for something tougher than “Alternative 1” — the most aggressive regulatory option EPA explored, which would cut emissions 61 percent on average over five years. That would begin with a 24 percent emissions cliff between model years 2026 and 2027.

The groups wrote that Alternative 3 would do the least to cut emissions and encourage EV sales of any of EPA’s options — both over the life of the rule and measured out through 2040. Alternative 2, for example, would cut less carbon over five years — 50 percent to Alternative 3’s 56 percent — but would be better for the climate in the long run because it would mandate cuts earlier, the groups said.

“The concern is that by slowing the pace of change you are allowing manufacturers to slow-roll technology development,” said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which signed the joint comments.

Even EPA’s proposed rule would probably do less to boost EVs than the agency projected, Cooke said, because EPA’s modeling did not fully account for automakers using more efficient gas cars and plug-in hybrids to meet the standards.

The Biden administration’s consideration of a weaker rule is viewed by many as an election-year concession to automakers, and especially to their workers. United Auto Workers has endorsed Biden’s bid for reelection — and UAW President Shawn Fain touted his support for Biden on Saturday on the social media platform X after the New York Times piece was published.

“Proud to cast my vote for President@JoeBiden today, the first day of early in-person voting in the state of Michigan!” he wrote.

Chris Harto, a senior transportation and energy policy analyst for Consumer Reports, said automakers lobbied for a standard that was even weaker than Alternative 3.

“What we don’t know is if the final proposal will go to something like that Alternative 3 or if it will be even weaker in the early years,” he said.

UAW declined to comment for this story.

Alson, the former EPA engineer, said the White House is typically involved in every aspect of a rule this important — starting well before it enters the Office of Management and Budget for review, as the EPA rule did in January.

“The people who will actually make the final decisions won’t be the OMB economists. They won’t be the EPA engineers, right?” he said. “It’s going to be high-level people at the top of the agency and important people in the White House environment and economics offices that will make those final decisions.

“Because, again, this is going to be a campaign issue,” he said.

A White House spokesperson referred requests for comment to EPA.

Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said the potential changes may be an effort to give voters comfort that Biden is not “going to take away my muscle car or my big heavy-duty pickup truck in an election year.”

But he said a rule that allows automakers needed time to build out charging infrastructure, bring down battery costs and stoke consumer demand for EVs might produce more uptake in the long run than a standard that is more aggressive but leads to higher costs.

Reporters Sean Reilly, Kevin Bogardus, Robin Bravender and David Ferris contributed. 

This story also appears in Energywire.