California last week resolved to push full speed ahead with its greenhouse-gas emissions standards and zero-emission-vehicle (ZEV) program for 2022 through 2025. Some see this as strong pushback against the leadership of the federal EPA, which is signaling a more lax approach to climate-change-related regulation, including a pending review of federal fuel-economy requirements.
If federal mileage requirements are relaxed, there will be less pressure on automakers to build advanced-technology vehicles such as electric cars, plug-in hybrids, and fuel-cell vehicles. However, California’s own Advanced Clean Cars program continues, to varying degrees, to be effective at mandating these in the Golden State—and soon, more aggressively in nine other states that use the California emission standards.
Twelve states have adopted California’s emissions standard; together, their total population of 113 million—35 percent of the U.S. population—accounts for 30 percent of U.S. new-vehicle sales. And nine of those 12 states—Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont—are partners in something called the ZEV mandate. Pennsylvania and Washington use California rules but haven’t embraced the ZEV mandate.
In a series of formal hearings last Friday, attended by officials of several of those other states and followed by a vote of the California Air Resources Board vote, regulators reaffirmed a plan to ramp-up requirements for ZEVs, with the aim of having them make up 15.4 percent of total vehicle sales by 2025. This would put 4 million ZEVs on the road in California by 2030, with the objective to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 4 to 5 percent each year between 2025 and 2030. It also retains tighter standards for emissions of particulate matter, which the EPA says can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health problems.
Midterms Not Over Yet
On the federal level, trends since since January 20 have moved in the opposite direction. Hearing the protests of automakers, collectively through the Auto Alliance and the Global Automakers organization, President Trump announced earlier this month that he was ordering the EPA to reopen the midterm review. In the final days of the Obama administration, the EPA rushed a final determination of 2022 to 2025 federal greenhouse-gas (and thus gas mileage) rules that cut the timeline for the rules’ midterm evaluation short by about 15 months.
Regaining that time frame could potentially give the administration the time to draft solid arguments for holding steady on regulations rather than continuing to ramp them up.
The California decision roughly coincides with the conclusions of a multiyear analysis and a mammoth Technical Assessment Report released from the EPA, NHTSA, and CARB last July. Manufacturers are overcomplying with current greenhouse-gas standards, both at the federal level and in California, the report found.
On the ZEV front, California reports that overcompliance today is allowing automakers to accumulate credit banks that can be applied against future (tighter) requirements. The days of limited, California-only vehicles often characterized as “compliance cars” are likely to change soon anyhow. Through this year, a travel provision in the regulations allows automakers to count sales in any of the 10 ZEV mandate states (including California) in all 10 states. That has allowed companies to focus on California early adopters. Beginning with 2018, they’ll have to focus on sales in those other states, also, although a pooled-credit system should also make that easier.
Industry Is Making It Look Easy
In a presentation preceding the vote, CARB pointed to supporting evidence for keeping the regulations on track. For instance, 21 percent of the 2016 vehicle fleet already complies with 2020 standards, and technological improvements such as vehicle lightweighting, aerodynamic drag reduction, low-rolling-resistance tires, and stop/start systems (including 48-volt technology) promise cost-effective room for even better fuel efficiency. Three-quarters of the 2025 vehicle mix could still be non-hybrid gasoline vehicles, the agency said, while the theoretical mix to meet those standards would include 3 percent battery electric vehicles, 2 percent plug-in hybrids, and 2 percent full hybrids—with the remaining 18 percent composed of gasoline vehicles with advanced stop/start systems.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the California standards have avoided an estimated 13 million metric tons of carbon emissions since 2011, saving 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline and $4 billion in gas costs. And from an analysis done by the UCS and based on EPA numbers, the typical battery-electric vehicle charged on the California power grid results in the carbon-dioxide-emissions equivalent to a gasoline vehicle getting 87 mpg. Over their respective lifetimes, this analysis shows, a gasoline vehicle produces twice the global-warming emissions of an equivalent electric car.
Automakers continue to send mixed signals, protesting regulations requiring EVs even as they boast about the vehicles’ future and develop them for sale in other markets around the world where regulations are stiffer still. California claims an incremental cost of $875 per vehicle to comply with this most recent “proposed determination” and cites significant cuts in the cost of fuel-cell and battery technology from 2006 to 2015—down 57 percent for fuel-cell tech and 73 percent for batteries.
New EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has said that he plans to review the waiver that allows California (and the other participating states) to go its own way in regulating vehicle emissions. But don’t expect the new federal administration to strip away California’s regulatory authority any time soon; experts advise that would take years of lawsuits—something Pruitt, who has filed more than a dozen suits against the agency he now heads, is actually quite familiar with.