The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under the leadership of administrator Scott Pruitt, is reopening the review of 2022–2025 standards that had been closed by the previous EPA administration ahead of the original timeline. While that alone could affect the future market—and automakers’ research and development decisions for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids—there’s another dark cloud hanging on the electric-car horizon: Plug-in vehicles of all kinds are bound to be a little bit dirtier over their lifetime than they might have been.
That’s because electric cars are only as clean as the electricity used to charge them. With the expected dissolution of the Clean Power Plan, after an EPA review initiated by President Trump’s “energy independence” executive order this week, it’s likely that some states could take considerably longer to clean up their power generation. There would no longer be an assumption that all states would work to wean themselves from coal and toward renewable sources and natural gas.
The EPA previously said of the Clean Power Plan that it “establishes the foundation of long-term clean energy investments that will ensure the reliability of our electric grid, maintain affordability for consumers, and establish the U.S. as a leader in addressing climate change.” It aims to cut pollution from the power sector by 32 percent by 2030 and sets carbon-pollution standards across the nation in which it says “all gas and coal-/oil-fired plants are treated fairly.” That allows states to take different approaches depending on their current energy mix.
In Some States, an EV Could Spend a Lifetime Rolling Coal, Sort of
Over the compliance period that goes from 2022 to 2030—a period that would coincide with the tougher 2022–2025 federal vehicle regulations that would incentivize more plug-in vehicles (although not require them as California does)—the EPA says the plan “helps avoid long-lasting changes to our climate caused by carbon pollution.” Through the often squishy math that’s used to affect policy, total costs are $8.4 billion, and the agency estimates $34 million to $54 million in benefits, including reductions in deaths, hospitalizations, and missed work and/or school days.
Simply put, EVs get cleaner as the electricity they’re charging with becomes cleaner, which was to be a secondary benefit of the Clean Power Plan’s revamping of power generation and the grid. It’s one of the signature pieces of policy from the particularly EV-friendly Obama administration. Under Pruitt, a reemphasis on coal and fossil fuels could quash the improvement in some of the states that arguably need it most—leaving electric vehicles charged in those states only marginally better than most gasoline models for overall carbon emissions.
The states that depend most heavily on coal, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, are West Virginia, Kentucky, and Wyoming, while states that rely heavily on hydroelectric (Washington, Idaho, Oregon) or even nuclear (New Jersey, Connecticut) power lie at the opposite end of the pollution scale and thus have a cleaner grid to plug into.
EPA administrator Pruitt made a telling comment recently that served to underscore the level of regulatory change that could be on the way. He contradicted information on his agency’s own website, saying that he believed carbon dioxide not to be a primary contributor to global warming.
The Fox Guarding the Henhouse?
The Senate confirmed Pruitt’s appointment last month to the lead position at an agency that he had been combating for much of the time in his role as Oklahoma attorney general. Pruitt has previously joined attorneys representing 27 states to allege that the EPA had overstepped its Clean Air Act authority.
Unsurprisingly, the appointment of Pruitt has garnered some strong reactions from environmental groups. The executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, said that Pruitt was unfit to serve in the role and that putting him in the position is “like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.” The League of Conservation Voters likened Pruitt running the EPA to “the fox guarding the henhouse.” The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said, “Since becoming Oklahoma’s top legal officer in 2011, Pruitt has sued the EPA to stop vital protections for public health—including standards for reducing soot and smog pollution that crosses interstate lines; protections against emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gases, and other toxic pollutants from power plants; and standards to improve air quality in national parks and wilderness areas. Each time he failed.”
There’s already been a regulatory row in the making, as the Obama-era EPA, under Gina McCarthy, jumped ahead of a public comment period and made a proposed determination—a politically charged maneuver, by most interpretations—citing “robust technical analysis” that greenhouse-gas-based standards for cars and light trucks through 2025 remain in place. The Global Automakers association, a group that represents 12 foreign-owned automakers, had asked for the action to be withdrawn for a normal timeline and policy review.
Another Type of California Fault Line
A federal government that reduces its regulation of carbon emissions or pulls back on targets could create a major rift pitting the 10 states that follow California’s Air Resources Board ZEV mandate against the rest of the nation. The auto industry has been moving rapidly toward electrification over the past few years, with current trajectories showing estimates of plug-in-vehicle (pure EV and plug-in hybrid) sales reaching more than a million by 2024.
While reopening the review of fuel-economy standards (and relaxing future fleet regulations) will likely be relatively easy, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan will take longer to unravel. It’s currently under a court stay and might not be completely resolved until 2018. Pruitt may end up overseeing a U.S. energy landscape with more energy independence, cleaner energy, and, perhaps, lower gas prices and kilowatt-hour rates. But it’s likely there won’t be nearly as much rapid change happening under the hood of the vehicles on the market.