Get ready to scrap your gas guzzler. And your gas sipper, too.
California’s chief air-pollution regulator said this week the state is considering a ban on cars fueled by internal-combustion engines.
While the ban would be at least a decade away, Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said putting California motorists in an all-electric fleet would help the state meet its ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Tailpipes generate more than one-third of all greenhouse gases, according to state data, and so far only a small fraction of California’s motorists drive electric vehicles.
Nichols made the comment in an interview with Bloomberg news, saying Gov. Jerry Brown has been asking her about a ban on gas- and diesel-powered cars announced recently by China.
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“I’ve gotten messages from the governor asking, ‘Why haven’t we done something already?’ The governor has certainly indicated an interest in why China can do this and not California,” Nichols told Bloomberg.
Chinese leaders said earlier this month they plan to phase out internal-combustion cars at some point, although they haven’t set a date. The United Kingdom and France said in July they would ban such vehicles by 2040.
Predictably, Nichols’ comments sent the auto world buzzing, given California’s status as an automotive trendsetter and its aggressive push to crack down on air pollution and eliminate fossil fuels from everyday life. Regulations imposed by the Air Resources Board in California often become industry standard.
“That’s a pretty powerful statement,” said Rick Niello, who runs a chain of high-end car dealerships in the Sacramento area. “The devil would be in the details.”
Niello questioned how a ban would play out: Would California limit the ban to new models and let people drive their old cars? Could the state’s electrical grid handle everyone’s electric vehicles plugged in every night? How would the state deal with issues of affordability for the poor?
“How do you take care of the people that need transportation when you want to yank their car away from them?” Niello said. “I hope they’ve thought about that. Because if they haven’t, the backlash would be rather significant.”
Karl Brauer, an industry analyst with Kelley Blue Book in Southern California, dismissed Nichols’ prediction as simply unrealistic.
Electric cars “have come a long way” but still face enormous limitations, Brauer said. In particular, most vehicles can’t go much beyond 200 miles without having to be recharged, and having millions of cars on the road in California would simply overwhelm the available charging stations, he said. Brauer said he doesn’t expect that problem to be resolved for many years.
Automakers took a dim if somewhat measured view.
“We have been working with California on intelligent, market-based approaches to emissions reductions beyond 2025, and we hope that this doesn’t signal an abandonment of that position,” said John Bozzella, president of the Association of Global Automakers, in a prepared statement. “To reach our goals, we will need continued investment in new technologies, the infrastructure to support them, and, perhaps most importantly, consumers who will want to buy them.” The association represents foreign automakers’ U.S. divisions.
Dan Sperling, a UC Davis transportation professor who serves on the Air Resources Board with Nichols, said the chairwoman’s comments are roughly in line with other ambitious air-pollution goals and mandates established by California lawmakers and policymakers in recent years.
For instance, a law signed by Brown last year requires California to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. The Air Resources Board has established an informal goal of having electric vehicles make up 40 percent of California’s cars by 2030.
Nichols’ statement “is not far from the kinds of things California is proceeding with...albeit at the upper limit,” Sperling said.
He said a ban in ten years probably isn’t realistic. But it could happen in, say, a quarter century.
“It’s not unreasonable to think about essentially having all light-duty (car) sales by electric vehicles by 2040,” Sperling said.
How California would impose such a ban wasn’t clear. Although California has the power to set its own air pollution standards, it needs the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval to do so. Nichols acknowledged that the Trump administration, which is already feuding with the Air Resources Board over greenhouse gases, almost certainly wouldn’t allow California to impose a ban on internal-combustion engine vehicles.
“I think we would be looking at using some of our other authorities to get to that result,” Nichols said.
A ban on gas and diesel vehicles could have dire implications for California’s oil industry, which is one of the largest in the country. California oil production is centered mainly around Kern County and parts of Southern California.
California has labored to increase the use of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, providing rebates of at least $1,500 for purchases or long-term leases of “clean” cars. Californians drive about 250,000 clean cars, or about half of all the clean cars on the road in America.
Nonetheless, the vehicles have struggled to gain acceptance, even in California. Electrics and plug-ins accounted for only 46,000 sales in the first half of 2017, less than 5 percent of the total, according to the California New Car Dealers Association. The increasing popularity of bigger cars and “light trucks” in recent years, including pickups, vans and SUVs, has frustrated California’s efforts to ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation generates 37 percent of all greenhouse gases in California, more than any other source of emissions.
Nichols’ statement, meanwhile, came at a pivotal moment in the war on carbon. California is fighting with automakers and the Trump administration over federal rules, put in place by former President Obama, that will require automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in new vehicles by about one-third by 2025.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is thinking of relaxing those rules. California has signaled that it will defy the EPA and stick with the mandates developed during the Obama administration. Because California represents such a large share of the U.S. market, automakers are trying to forge a compromise between Sacramento and Washington.
As much as California officials have pushed to phase out fossil fuels, the state has blinked at times. Notably, the Legislature this year failed to pass SB 100, which would have required the state’s electric utilities to use solar, wind and other renewable energy sources for 100 percent of their power by 2045.