Trump Casts Dark Cloud Over Cleaner Cars; States Offer Hope

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2018 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

Frustratingly, 2018 will be marked by the Trump administration’s attempt to roll back of successful clean car and fuel economy standards. If successful, the rollback will be a disaster for consumers and the environment, forcing drivers to pay more at the pump while increasing carbon pollution.

Thankfully, many state leaders won’t stand for it and are fighting back. 2018 could also mark the beginning of a wave of state vehicle policies that will keep us on a climate-safe path.

Corporate Interests Over American Needs

A recent New York Times investigation found that the Trump administration engaged in a dirty oil industry scheme for keeping us hooked on their polluting product. An industry-funded front group covertly fed the policymakers false justifications for flat-lining standards in favor of gas-guzzling vehicles. Big Oil’s goal is clear: boost its profits.

Automakers are now caught in a bind. They lobbied to weaken the existing standards, but say they oppose halting progress. They are now faced with regulatory chaos and the potential for lengthy legal fights.

Trump’s rollback is unjustified, fails basic economics and illegally attempts to preempt California and other states’ authority to set vehicle pollution standards. California and sixteen states have already sued the administration—as has NRDC and several other public interest groups. If the administration follows through with its plans, more legal battles await, which would create an investment-planning nightmare for the automakers and their hundreds of suppliers.

Jobs are at stake. The Motor and Engine Manufacturers Association estimates that the rollback would reduce fuel-saving and clean car technology investments and eliminate 67,000 automotive manufacturing jobs and hundreds of thousands more jobs induced by automotive worker spending. Lest you think they are being alarmist, the Trump administration itself estimates that its plan would lead to 60,000 fewer jobs. Drivers would spend $170 billion more at the pump as a result (which helps explain why Big Oil is such a fan of this insidious proposal).

The administration should reconsider its oily logic and withdraw its dangerous proposal. Instead of slowing our efforts to reduce carbon emissions from cars, trucks and buses, we need to accelerate clean vehicle technologies, engine efficiency and other measures that help cut pollution. The urgency of our situation becomes clearer every day; if the Trump administration fails to grapple with it, they are sure to face pressure from Congress and in court.   

State Guiding Lights

Thankfully, many states understand the urgency of addressing carbon pollution from cars and trucks and are acting accordingly.

California will defend its vehicle pollution standards, which are aligned with the existing federal standards without the Trump rollback. And the Golden State is not alone. This year Colorado, under the leadership of Gov. John Hickenlooper, became the 14th state, to set its car standards equal to California's. The standards are designed to reduce average new vehicle carbon pollution by 36 percent from 2016 to 2025. In 2019, we could see more state leaders adopt vehicle emission standards to protect their citizens, strengthening the backstop to a federal rollback.

1 Million EVs

In late 2018, the U.S. auto market blew past 1 million in cumulative electric vehicles (EV) sales since 2010. Now there are more than 50 EV models for consumers to choose from and more are expected. EV sales have been growing year-over-year but the 2018 release of the Tesla Model 3 propelled sales growth.

Atlas Public Policy EV Hub, www.atlasevhub.com.

States have been leading the way with policies to increase deployment of plug-in electric vehicles. 2018 was the biggest year yet for state-authorized utility investments in transportation electrification, as my colleague Noah Garcia describes in his blog. My colleague Miles Muller also provides examples of innovative rate-setting programs so that electric vehicle owners get access to cheap electricity when they charge overnight and other times of excess electricity availability.

Electric utilities in more than half the states in the country have filed transportation electrification proposals, primarily to deploy charging infrastructure, according to an Atlas Public Policy analysis.

Below are a few highlights of state transportation electrification efforts in 2018:

  • California: The state has plans for $1 billion in transportation electrification programs to support the rapid deployment of charging for cars, trucks, buses and port vehicles, many of which will replace dirty diesel vehicles. California also just finalized a requirement that new transit buses be electric by 2029.
  • Massachusetts: The commonwealth increased its utility EV infrastructure programs to $70 million in 2018 with investments by Eversource and National Grid. National Grid is proposing an additional $166 million program for consideration in 2019.
  • North Carolina: Gov. Roy Cooper is seeking to lead the Southeast in EV programs with a visionary executive order calling for at least 80,000 EVs in the state by 2025.
  • Nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and DC committed to developing a regional clean transportation system that aims to dramatically cut tailpipe pollution and provide more sustainable transportation options for all. 

In 2018, California also enhanced its Low Carbon Fuel Standard to provide purchase incentives to EV buyers. Because driving on electricity contributes less carbon pollution than gasoline- or diesel-fueled miles, electric utilities can earn LCFS credits. These credits are converted to EV purchase rebates through the state’s Clean Fuels Reward program.

Many states have EV purchase incentives. These are important complements to federal EV tax credits of up to $7,500. In 2018, Tesla EVs sales reached the 200,000 per-manufacturer cap that begins to phase out the tax credit eligibility. GM and Nissan are soon to follow. We are urging Congress to extend the tax credit in 2019 so that car buyers can continue to receive a tax credit and choose from EVs among all automakers.

Now is the time to accelerate EV adoption. EVs sales are growing but still comprise less than 2 percent of the automobile market. Continued government support will be critical to achieve the widespread EV use needed to clean our air and protect our climate. 

We have a long way to go to cease our heavy dependence on polluting oil and clean up the transportation. Sadly, the Trump administration is eager to help its buddies in the oil industry while neglecting its duties to clean our air and address the threat of climate change. We will be doing all we can to fight its efforts and spur progress. And we’ll also keep encouraging the visionary leadership in the states. It’s no time to hit the brakes, and the success in these states demonstrates what we can achieve. 

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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