Washington wants drivers to plug into clean cars by 2030 before other West Coast states
Democratic-led states on the West Coast are setting ambitious timelines to phase out sales of gasoline-powered cars and light trucks. The Washington Legislature just approved a goal that all new cars sold in the state beginning with model year 2030 be electric. Oregon and California have 2035 as their target. Some of these dates are aspirational, but one has teeth.
When Seattle lawyer Matthew Metz first started pitching a 2030 date to end sales of new cars that run on gas, even he acknowledged it was seen as radical by the state lawmakers with whom he spoke.
"There was definitely a lot of pushback and a lot of fear among politicians on both sides of the aisle that this was somehow touching the third rail," said Metz.
Well, it's no longer shocking, at least not on the West Coast. The transition of new car sales to electric-only is an official policy goal by virtue of two sentences tucked in the back of Washington state’s new transportation spending package, a 2019 bill approved by the Oregon Legislature and an executive order from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
"It's easier for people's minds to get wrapped around that actually electric vehicles can serve as a replacement for gas vehicles,” Metz said in an interview. “That's been a big change. And just the climate crisis and the recognition that hey, we really need to do something about vehicles."
Vehicle exhaust is the single biggest source of climate warming emissions in West Coast states. Metz founded the environmental nonprofit Coltura, which focuses on achieving "a gasoline-free America."
The target to go electric-only by 2030 for new car sales was initially proposed as a requirement at the Washington Legislature by state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) last year. But that stalled out as there was insufficient support among Democrats and Republicans for it to be an enforceable mandate. So, it was watered down to just be a goal. There is no penalty if a dealer in 2031 were to sell and you chose to buy a new car with a gas or diesel engine. Oregon’s Legislature also specified that regulators should not propose mandates to achieve their state’s goal.
Metz said he's OK with that.
"In Washington (state), even though we might not be doing it as a ban, we still have a lot of powers. Government has a lot of ability to guide the state in that direction,” Metz said. “Just like you don't want to bet against city hall, well you don't want to necessarily bet against the state government if you're a car company."
Washington Senate Transportation Committee Chair Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo) said he does not foresee changing the goal to a requirement. In recent weeks, it has been routinely misconstrued in automotive journals and online story posts as a forthcoming ban on gasoline-powered cars.
"You can still buy a horse in Washington and you can still travel by horse if you want to,” Liias quipped. “Just because new technology comes out, doesn't mean that we ban old technologies.”
“When you look at the major manufacturers that have already announced they are going to stop producing internal combustion engines -- several in 2030, more in 2035 -- by the end of the 2030s decade, almost no manufacturer will be producing internal combustion engines anymore, according to their own projections. So, this is going to happen."
At the Glasgow climate conference last December, Ford joined General Motors in pledging to work toward all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission "in leading markets" by 2035. Volvo said by model year 2030 it will only make electric cars, while Honda picked a later year of 2040 to do so for the North American market.
Pacific Northwest car enthusiasts may want to keep as close of an eye on what's happening in Sacramento as on Olympia or Salem. That's because Washington state and Oregon previously agreed to follow California's clean car rules. Unlike the Northwest states' clean car goals, these rules are enforceable and carry stiff financial penalties for automakers who fall short.
California regulators at the powerful Air Resources Board are finalizing new requirements for automakers to sell a certain percentage of zero emissions vehicles. The latest draft of the rules applicable in states that follow California's lead require at least 26% of new car sales to be zero emissions by 2026, 68% by 2030 and 100% by 2035.
An economist who studies the transition to electric cars said setting target dates in the future risks getting the timing wrong. Professor Stephen Holland of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro spoke on a podcast taped for the American Economic Association.
"If we ban too early, it's bad,” Holland said. “If we just get rid of gas vehicles – and electric vehicles are not good substitutes for gas vehicles – everyone is going to be driving around in really inferior cars. There will be massive deadweight loss, according to our calculations."
Republicans in the Washington Legislature favored letting the free market determine the pace of electric vehicle adoption. The minority party objected to what it called a "government knows best" approach. But the GOP was frozen out of drafting the state transportation package in which the 2030 target was inserted this winter.
Both Liias and a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Ecology separately underscored that consumers will be able to buy any vehicle they want in the next decade. People can still drive around older gasoline powered cars post-2030 or 2035 in any of the regulatory scenarios under discussion along the West Coast.
The market share of electric car sales is accelerating in the Northwest and currently exceeds the overall regulatory targets for 2021-22. According to the Washington Department of Ecology, plug-in vehicles accounted for 7.7% of new car sales in 2021. That's the second best market share for EV sales in the country, behind only California. Oregon ranks close behind Washington.
Vehicle registration data shows that Tesla continues to dominate the U.S. electric vehicle market.
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