California’s new zero-emission vehicle rules face obstacles en route to carbon-neutral future
California’s transition over the next 15 years to a more climate friendly fleet of emission-free cars, trucks and SUVs stands to transform the nation’s leading automobile market and have broad implications for consumers, dealerships and the car maintenance industry.
The move, which will end the sale of all new gasoline-powered cars and trucks by 2035, was announced late last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom as part of the state’s bid to drastically cut back the emissions that fuel climate change. The executive order, Newsom said, will help fast-track California to reach its overarching target of carbon-neutrality by 2045.
“We can’t get there unless we accelerate our efforts in the transportation sector,” Newsom said during his Sept. 23 press conference in Sacramento. “We can’t continue down this path if we’re going achieve our audacious goals. And, as a consequence today, we are marking a new course.”
California already is the U.S. leader in electric vehicle purchases, with roughly 726,000 vehicles sold to date, representing about half of the nation’s market share. The mandate is expected to broaden that market, and ideally spur automakers to speed their delivery of more zero-emission models that are accessible to a wider range of consumers. Newsom said he hoped the move would encourage other states to follow suit.
But the mandate, lauded by climate advocates and EV enthusiasts, has already drawn criticism from the Trump administration, including Andrew Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. In a letter to Newsom, Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, questioned the legality and practicality of the order, and pointed to recent statewide energy shortages that he suggested may be exacerbated if the zero-emission vehicle policy takes hold.
“California’s record of rolling blackouts — unprecedented in size and scope — coupled with recent requests to neighboring states for power begs the question of how you expect to run an electric car fleet that will come with significant increases in electricity demand, when you can’t even keep the lights on today,” Wheeler wrote.
Environmental groups applauded the state’s ambitious plan, even if it was short on details. They called Newsom’s decision a step in the right direction, helping to realize cleaner air and water, and also improve public health by curbing California’s largest source of greenhouse gases, accounting for more than half of its annual emissions, Newsom said.
Some advocates say the governor’s directive, which he branded “the most significant effort of its kind anywhere in the world,” still doesn’t go far enough. Given modeling shows the world is already in the midst of a climate emergency, they suggest moving up the state’s 2035 timeline.
“We are very pleased that the governor took such bold action on transportation,” said Ellie Cohen, CEO of the Climate Center, a Santa Rosa-based group focused on climate change. “But there’s a lot more to do, and more needs to be done sooner. Our lives literally depend on it, and we need to beat it in fact, based on the science.”
Others, including some local government officials and auto repair shops, have quibbled over the lack of specifics for implementation, raising more questions than answers. The plan envisions shifting a large portion of the state’s economy away from its current dependence on fossil fuels for everything from jobs to maintaining California’s roads, they say, without considering or offering solutions.
“It’s inevitable gas-fired, fossil fuel vehicles will slowly be phased out,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who holds several appointed positions to oversee regional transportation. “I know the governor likes to make big picture pronouncements and have the details work out later. I think they go hand-in-hand. There’s a lot to be worked out.”
For one, Rabbitt said, a portion of the taxes motorists pay every time they fuel up goes toward upgrading roads and related public infrastructure. At 1,370 miles, Sonoma County’s road network is among the largest in the Bay Area and already receives insufficient state funds to fully maintain it. If an alternative and consistent source of money isn’t identified with the transition to vehicles that do not require taxable fuel, the roads will only get worse, Rabbitt said.
Motorists will still be allowed to own, drive and exchange traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles under the new state rules. They just won’t be able to purchase any new versions of those vehicles after 2035 in the state. Newsom’s order follows up on an Air Resources Board target established earlier this year that will phase out sale of all medium- and heavy-duty diesel vans, trucks and commercial hauling rigs by 2045.