The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden calls for half of new cars to be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2030

The executive order comes as part of a suite of new goals and mandates to cut climate-warming emissions from the auto sector

A charging station for electric vehicles at Union Station in Washington. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Biden on Thursday unveiled a far-reaching, multipronged plan to make U.S. cars and light trucks more fuel-efficient and to begin a shift to electric vehicles over the coming decade. The move marks one of the administration’s most consequential pushes so far to combat climate change and tackle the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The suite of new goals and mandates, forged after months of talks with car manufacturers, autoworkers and environmental groups, is meant to transform the kind of vehicles Americans drive and to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. The move comes with political risks for Biden, who has faced pressure from activists and industry representatives alike. But it represents a key part of his promise to try to slow rising global temperatures and propel the country toward a future in which the vehicles on roads and highways rely on little or no gasoline.

“Today, labor and industry, state and local leaders, are all working together to write the next chapter in the American story,” Biden said on the White House’s South Lawn. “We’re in competition with China and many other nations for the 21st century. To win, we’re going to have to make sure that the future will be made in America.”

But it remains to be seen whether Biden’s call to action will be enough to get the American auto industry to shift gears to cleaner cars quickly enough as part of a broader effort to tackle global warming.

The president signed an executive order calling for half of new passenger car sales to be of electric vehicles powered by batteries and fuel cells or plug-in electric hybrids by the end of the decade. It’s a long road ahead: Electric cars made up only 3.8 percent of sales in June, though that’s up from 1.5 percent a year ago, according to the Alliance For Automotive Innovation, a trade group.

Executives from auto companies, including Ford and General Motors, as well as lawmakers and United Auto Workers members joined Biden at the White House on Thursday afternoon.

Biden, a self-described “car guy,” turned to GM chief executive Mary Barra during his remarks and joked: “When they make the first electric Corvette, I get to drive it.”

In the near term, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department were also set Thursday to propose new requirements on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks through model year 2026.

That rulemaking represents the Biden administration’s first major effort to use the federal government’s regulatory authority to cut carbon emissions. It also is a repudiation of a freeze on fuel-efficiency standards imposed under Donald Trump, one of the former president’s biggest environmental rollbacks. Trump scaled back the requirements put in place under the Obama administration in 2012.

Tracking Biden’s environmental actions

With its new rule, the EPA is aiming for new passenger cars and trucks to get an average of 52 miles per gallon by 2026, a standard the agency said would be its most stringent yet.

Looking further out, the Biden team is also kicking off its push to set longer-term pollution standards for everything from tiny sedans to huge semitrailers made in the second half of the decade.

Taken together, the administration’s efforts aim to slash emissions from the nation’s top driver of global warming: the transportation sector, in which more than 90 percent of the fuel used today is derived from petroleum.

Yet to get Americans into cleaner cars, the administration faces a bumpy road ahead.

“What we need to be doing is figuring out how to get really dramatic reductions [in emissions] going forward,” said Mary Nichols, the former chair of the California Air Resources Board who helped forge a deal with five major automakers in 2019 to tighten their mileage standards beyond what the Trump administration set.

The Biden team modeled its near-term tailpipe targets on the California agreement. “We’ve been heating up, choking up and burning up on the West Coast of the United States,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in an interview Thursday. “We’ve been waiting for this announcement for years.”

Newsom said that a fast-growing fire that tore through the Northern California town of Greenville this week underscores “the fact that we need to step up our efforts to address the underlying cause here.”

Biden wants to turn America’s auto fleet electric. It’s harder than it seems.

But it is difficult to make up for lost ground in improving engines after the Trump administration eased regulations. Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said his group and others tried to push the White House to look beyond the parameters of the California deal. The Biden administration’s rules won’t fully offset the buildup of greenhouse gases caused by the Trump administration’s weakening of standards.

“They are not really forcing the industry to do a full course correction after the Trump [rollback],” Cooke said. “It puts us far behind where we need to be.”

And it’s still unclear whether the Biden administration will do enough to put the country on the path to reach its goal under the Paris climate agreement. The president wants to cut U.S. emissions in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. With his executive order Thursday, Biden hopes to send a signal to other countries to set their own aggressive climate goals ahead of a major climate conference in Scotland in the fall.

In Detroit and other industrial cities, electric vehicles represent a challenge to autoworkers as factories shift from making internal-combustion engines to battery-powered ones. A concern among factory workers is that their employers may be able to get by with fewer workers on the assembly line because electric vehicles have fewer parts. Both Ford and GM are investing in battery factories in the United States.

Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the United Auto Workers, which endorsed Biden last year, said the union’s focus “is not on hard deadlines or percentages, but on preserving the wages and benefits that have been the heart and soul of the American middle class.”

Meanwhile, the nation’s Big Three automakers — Ford, GM and Stellantis, formerly Fiat Chrysler — rallied around a “shared aspiration” less ambitious than the Biden goal. They are proposing that 40 to 50 percent of their annual U.S. sales be battery electric, fuel cell and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2030. Ford chief executive Jim Farley said that based on early demand for electric F-150 trucks and other vehicles, his company is “well positioned” to meet that mark.

But in a joint statement, the automakers said the shift “can be achieved only with the timely deployment of the full suite of electrification policies” from the federal government, including new financial incentives for drivers to buy zero-emission vehicles.

On Twitter, Elon Musk, chief executive of electric vehicle giant Tesla, suggested his company was snubbed from Biden’s event. It “seems odd that Tesla wasn’t invited,” Musk wrote.

Reaction was mixed from environmental groups.

Simon Mui, deputy director for clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised Biden’s proposal for getting the country “back on the road to cleaning up tailpipe pollution.” But he added: “This proposal delivers less carbon pollution reductions than the Obama-era standards and includes unfortunate loopholes that undercut progress.”

Without a quick transition, the United States risks sliding even further behind Europe and Asia in making batteries and other key components for electric vehicles. Biden’s action will undoubtedly face comparisons with what other developed nations are doing to speed the shift to electric vehicles.

“Whether U.S. manufacturers and workers see the benefits of this transition really depends on actions now,” said Zoe Lipman, director of manufacturing and advanced transportation at the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental groups.

Auto industry peers into an electric future and sees bumps ahead

The European Union last month proposed changes that would effectively phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered engines by 2035, part of a far-reaching package of measures intended to put the 27-country bloc on pace to reach net-zero emissions throughout its economy by mid-century.

The U.S. government must play a role in hastening its own shift, Nichols said, because some automakers are reluctant to move away from selling the highly profitable but gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks that remain popular today.

“They are not going to do it any faster than they have to,” said Nichols, who is now a visiting fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Advocates for electric vehicles, in both government and industry, must also sway an American driving public worried about not being able to find spots to plug in and recharge.

“The auto companies are there. We need the consumers to be there,” said Don Stewart, executive vice president of public affairs at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. “And the federal government plays a huge role in that.”

A big question is how much financial support Congress will provide.

Plans to provide new tax breaks for buying electric vehicles hinge on Democrats passing a budget bill with razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate. And a bipartisan infrastructure plan includes just $7.5 billion for dotting U.S. corridors with vehicle chargers — half the amount Biden first called for to build 500,000 recharging spots.

“Now Congress has to act because this goal won’t be met just by setting it,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), whose district has been decimated by the loss of auto factory jobs. “We have to have industrial policy in this country that is about something.”

Faiz Siddiqui and Michael Laris contributed to this report.

Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every Thursday