Green Tech

Industry, consumer, and environmental stakeholders await final rule on tailpipe-emissions standards

“Sometimes the biggest impact we can have…is to go out and try to drive progress through competitive forces,” ZETA Executive Director Albert Gore III told Tech Brew.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

A final rule on tailpipe-emissions standards for vehicles that could have a significant role in shaping the US EV transition could come down any day now—though experts say nothing is set in stone in a presidential election year.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule for model year 2027–2032 vehicles has gotten caught up in electoral politics and has found industry, labor, consumer, and environmental stakeholders pitted against each other amid debates about how quickly the clean-energy transition should move.

At the heart of the debate is a proposal released last spring that would implement the EPA’s toughest-ever tailpipe-emissions rule, which, according to estimates, would ensure EVs make up 60% of new light-duty vehicle sales by 2030 and 67% by 2032.

But the Biden administration is reportedly prepared to finalize a rule that would allow a slower transition through 2030, per a New York Times report last month that suggested the White House was slowing electrification plans amid opposition from car dealers, automakers, and auto workers ahead of the November presidential election.

Concerns centered on a recent slowdown in EV demand, raw materials constraints, possible job losses for workers who make combustion-engine vehicles and their parts, and inadequate charging infrastructure. Car dealers have been some of the most vocal opponents, with a group of thousands calling for the administration to “hit the brakes on the proposed electric vehicle mandate.”

On the other side are consumer and environmental advocates who contend that the climate crisis demands the swiftest and strongest possible action to curb the transportation sector’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Among the proponents of more stringent standards is the Zero Emission Transportation Association (ZETA), a coalition of EV makers, charging companies, battery manufacturers, and others that are all-in on electrifying transportation.

Tech Brew caught up with ZETA Executive Director Albert Gore III on the group’s advocacy for a stricter rule, why he doesn’t buy the arguments for a slower transition, and why he hopes swift progress can still be achieved even if an alternative rule is finalized. The rule is expected to come out as early as this month.

Gore pointed to factors like growing demand for EVs, multibillion-dollar investments in electrification by automakers and their suppliers, and progress in building out an EV charging network to argue that the US should go full-steam ahead. In comments submitted to the EPA last summer, he contended that “backtracking on the stringency of these proposed standards will not only jeopardize the health, climate, and environmental benefits but would create regulatory chaos.”

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“The proposed rule had several alternatives; we believed a more aggressive timeline was achievable,” he told us. “But one of the other alternatives is centered around an identical grams-per-mile target for 2032.”

(Grams-per-mile refers to how much tailpipe carbon dioxide a vehicle emits; the average passenger vehicle emits about 400 grams of carbon dioxide per mile, according to the EPA.)

Now, he said, the “North Star of cutting tailpipe emissions more than in half by 2032 is still there, it just gives automakers a bit more flexibility in how to get there. We’re going to continue to do our job, which is to move as quickly as we possibly can, collectively, as a group. And sometimes the biggest impact we can have once the rule is locked is to go out and try to drive progress through competitive forces.”

He pointed to the last several years, during which new and legacy automakers alike invested heavily in electrification—to comply with regulations, yes, but also because they were chasing the success of EV makers like Tesla.

He also noted that the proposed rule does not dictate how automakers comply, and has been “sometimes mischaracterized by opponents of the policy as an EV mandate.” For example, the EPA said it expects the rule “to drive widespread use of filters to reduce gasoline particulate matter emissions.” The standards apply across each automaker’s fleet, so they can comply using whatever mix of technologies they want, such as by introducing more gasoline-electric hybrids.

Still, car research site Edmunds pointed out in a recent blog post that the “only way” to meet the proposed rule with “current technology” is going electric. Although this means fewer combustion-engine vehicles will be on the road in the years to come, Edmunds estimates that the rule would “leave room” for some 5 million new gas-powered vehicles in 2032. And even in an all-electric scenario, Edmunds said that it would still take at least 15 years from the last combustion-engine vehicle rolling off an assembly line for the US fleet to be all-electric.

“The EPA’s new regulations push EVs a lot faster than the auto industry wants to go but not as fast as some environmentalists would like,” Edmunds said. “Look for a court battle once the final rule is published.”

And another thing to keep in mind? Edmunds notes that “all bets are off if Democrats lose the White House in November.”

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