CALIFORNIA — It’s been a month since Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring that all new car and passenger truck sales in the state be zero emissions by 2035 — an initiative that’s going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach to pull off.

Electric vehicles currently account for just 1.2% of the 27.7 million registered passenger vehicles in the state and just 5.3% of new passenger vehicle sales. Because the state’s Air Resources Board is the agency tasked with developing the regulations to effectuate the executive order, we asked ARB Chair, Mary Nichols, to explain how the pieces are coming together to make that happen.

What You Need To Know

  • Last month, Gov. Newsom issued an executive order requiring that all new car and passenger truck sales in the state be zero emissions by 2035

  • Electric vehicles currently account for just 1.2% of the 27.7 million registered passenger vehicles in the state

  • ARB Chair, Mary Nichols, believes the three-part strategy to get emissions under control are zero-emissions fuel, zero-emissions vehicles, and for people to drive less

  • Nichols is confident that California can meet the 2035 deadline

What happens if California is not able to reach the goal of 100% EV sales in 15 years?

Nichols: The world needs to get transportation emissions under control, and right now the only way we know how to do that is to pursue a three-part strategy. We’ve got to do zero-emissions fuel, we’ve got to have zero-emissions vehicles, and we’ve got to drive less because all the older vehicles out there are still going to be emitting. We’ve got to get those emissions down as quickly as possible. 

It requires thinking on a number of different fronts about what the future of transportation will be. It requires knowing about land use, and where we put people, and how they get where they need to go, and how much they want to work and not drive anywhere. There’s a lot of interlocking questions. The emissions themselves are around 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions and an even larger share of urban pollution problems, so there’s a lot of moving parts here. 

It’s a system that’s grown up over many decades, and you have to think through it as well as you can while at the same time leaving time for innovation and technology and changes in preferences that consumers have because ultimately in a democracy the voters have to decide whether this is something they’re willing to do. We’re looking at all of those issues trying to balance them, and at the same time our responsibility is to lay out the facts and the need and to propose a solution. Hopefully the solution is aligned with the market and with what new technology can provide and what will be affordable. 

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That’s been the experience over many decades now, for the 50 years of the Clean Air Act. California has set standards that at the time seemed overly ambitious to some and not strong enough to others. Industry generally claimed it would be too expensive, and they couldn’t do it, and they’ve seen now, over half a century, that California has been a very vibrant vehicle market, is known as a trend setter, and has brought emissions from vehicles way, way down. 

In an interview with Bloomberg News more than three years ago, you said California was considering a ban on gas-powered cars. Was Newsom’s announcement predicated on what former Governor Jerry Brown had already set in motion, wanting California to match China’s ban on vehicles powered with fossil fuels?

Nichols: That was one milestone that occurred along the way, but this is something that legislators and activists and others have talked about as a potential idea. We decided early on that it’s a better approach to look at a mandate and how that might work rather than looking at it as a ban. It was also something California could do, and we were ready to take on. It’s just fortunate timing that the governor was getting ready to make a speech for climate week in September and decided that would be a good occasion to unveil it.

A lot of people were surprised by the announcement. Should they have been so shocked?

Nichols: Sometimes, something we’ve thought about and expected is still surprising when it happens. And it was announced as an executive order, which of course gives it additional clout in terms of requirements for all parts of state government to cooperate. The response of the regulatory community, in general, they were not at all surprised.

Your agency will be developing the regulations to make this happen. Have you set incremental goals leading up to 2035 for what’s doable?

Nichols: We have not put out a proposal on that. We had the first of a series of workshops we’ll be holding over a year and we’ll be looking at a mix of incentives and steps along the way and how it pairs up with providing available charging, as well as other variations on the theme that you get into when you draft a regulation, but we have not made any decisions. 

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Does that mean that in a year, you’ll have a general idea of what the regulation might look like?

Nichols: We haven’t set ourselves a deadline at this point, but we obviously know what the ultimate deadline is, and we’d like to move as quickly as possible. We do have processes required by law, and we want to make sure we’ve invited all the interested parties to comment, and had a chance to digest their comments. This is a world that’s changing daily in terms of the market. We need to look at what’s happening, as well as the exact mix of ingredients that go into the rule, because at the same time we’re doing this we’re looking at the regulation that would deal with the so-called Clean Miles Standard for ride-hailing services. [Editor’s note: In 2018, California Jerry Brown signed the Clean Miles Standard into law, requiring ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, to not only account for but reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their vehicle operations.] 

Why was 2035 selected as the date to shift 100% of new passenger vehicle sales to zero emissions?

Nichols: It was based on consideration of what we thought was doable given the tremendous reliance that Californians have on their vehicles. We do not intend to take away any cars that people need, and we can’t give everybody a new car, much as that might be the easiest way to do this. But you have to phase in any requirements like this, so we looked at the fact that there are many new models coming out that will meet the needs of different types of families and customers and small business, and we looked at the prices of batteries, which have been coming down very nicely, and then also the fact that the fleet doesn’t turn over all that quickly, especially with the slow economy that we’re all living with right now. So that seemed like a target date that we felt we could meet.

Even with the executive order, 50% of the vehicles on California’s roads will still be powered with gas in 2035. Does that concern you?

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Nichols: There’s a certain pace at which you can expect the fleet to turn over. There has to be an orderly transition process, so everyone can plan for it and nobody gets stuck.

How concerned are you that we’re running out of time to get emissions under control?

Nichols: I’m deeply concerned and doing everything I can think of. I’ve already voted, so that’s a start. 

What effect, if any, will the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court have on what California is trying to achieve with emissions reductions?

Nichols: I don’t think there’s a simple answer. We know she will shift the court further to the right and even further in the direction of being pro-corporation and anti-government, anti-regulations of all kinds, so those are political predilections. But the Supreme Court, even though they have lifetime appointments and they do get to exercise their views about what the law is, they really don’t just make this stuff up.

One of the best examples of that is the premiere case on the Clean Air Act and its relationship to greenhouse gas gases, which is Massachusetts versus the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was the states that were claiming the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set greenhouse gases for vehicles, and it was the Bush administration rejecting that idea, claiming the Clean Air Act did not cover it.

The litigants brought up the history of the Clean Air Act and the specific language that says whenever there is an air pollutant that causes problems with human health and the environment, the EPA must set a standard. It was Justice Scalia who read the law and said, ‘EPA go do this,’ so they were not deferring to EPA, but they were doing what the states, including California, strongly asserted was not only the intent of Congress but what the environment required. 

In general, I think there will be more emphasis on getting Congress to act, so they will state definitively what should be done on some of these issues where there’s controversy, which could swing the balance toward legislation, but there’s not a simple one-sentence answer to that one. We can always hope Amy will do some more reading and discover that global climate change is real.



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