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California moves toward banning new cars running only on gas by 2035

The major climate regulation to be proposed by the car-clogged state could have far-reaching effects on the auto industry

Traffic backs up at the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza on February 16, 2022 in Oakland, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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California is set to move closer to banning the sale of new cars running only on gasoline by 2035, a major step in the car-loving state’s fight against climate change.

The expected embrace of the policy by the state’s Air Resources Board during a meeting scheduled for Thursday comes after Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) set a target in 2020 for cleaning up California’s auto fleet.

The proposed regulation would set strict deadlines for meeting that goal, forcing automakers to step up production of cleaner vehicles considerably, starting in 2026. The requirements would only speed forward from there, until only zero-emission passenger cars, pickup trucks and SUVs as well as a limited number of plug-in hybrids are allowed to be sold in the state by 2035.

Liane Randolph, chair of the Air Resources Board, trumpeted the proposal for delivering “a more than 50 percent reduction in pollution from cars and light trucks by 2040” and moving the state closer to a future where there are no vehicle emissions at all.

The state’s move does not ban the sale of any used vehicles. And owners of old-fashioned gas guzzlers will still be able to drive California’s roadways.

“This will help to accelerate the transition and give a signal that customers and states are ready for this transition to occur rapidly,” said Kathy Harris, clean vehicles and fuels advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is a really exciting announcement.”

Famous (or infamous) for driving culture and congested freeways, California has considerable sway over the entire auto industry. A federal waiver under the Clean Air Act allows the state to impose stricter tailgate emission standards than the federal Environmental Protection Agency requires, with more than a dozen other states having opted to use the standards set by California in the past.

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The waiver emerged as a considerable source of tension between the state and President Donald Trump. His deputies at the EPA stripped California of its right to set its own climate tailpipe standards only for the Biden administration to restore it earlier this year.

The state agency will send the proposed rule to the EPA for final approval. For its part, the Biden administration issued stricter nationwide tailpipe rules last year for new cars and SUVs made through 2026.

California’s aggressive timeline comes soon after Biden signed a climate package that spends tens of billions of dollars to speed up the transition to electric vehicles through generous tax credits for buyers of the vehicles and incentives for carmakers to move their production lines to the U.S. and expand operations.

But the state’s regulations could prove even more impactful. They send a clear signal to the auto industry that much of the nation’s car market will be closed to many kinds of gasoline-powered vehicles in relative short order. As the industry announces plans for battery factories and assembly plants and new electric models in the U.S., the state’s move encourages carmakers to step things up even more.

“It is a big deal,” said Scott Hochberg, transportation attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. But he cautioned that the state could still be moving faster, and that “we would have liked to see the rule go much further.”

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Among its shortcomings, Hochberg said, are a lack of incentives for low-income communities and too-lax standards for cleaning up emissions from internal-combustion engines sold before the 2035 deadline. “The rule needed to react to the urgency of the moment, but it fell short.”

The Golden State has a long legacy of forcing automakers to step up their efficiency. Selling two fleets of vehicles — one in California and states that follow its regulations and another in states that follow only federal standards — is logistically and financially prohibitive for automakers.

Many electric vehicles have a long waiting list for buyers. Car companies investing billions of dollars into making EVs and meeting that demand are still leery about the speedy timeline being set by California.

“Despite this positive trend, California’s EV sale mandates are still very aggressive — even in California with decades of supportive EV policies — and will be extremely challenging,” said John Bozzella, president and chief executive of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the trade group representing carmakers. “That’s just a fact.”

Whether the state’s goals can be reached, he added, depends on many factors, including “inflation, charging and fuel infrastructure, supply chains, labor, critical mineral availability and pricing, and the ongoing semiconductor shortage.”

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Yet California doesn’t want to wait. Beset by raging wildfires, oppressive droughts and rising oceans, the state is already being hit hard by the effects of human-made climate change. The disasters have prodded officials there to act aggressively to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Replacing gas guzzlers with electric cars may also alleviate smoggy skies over Los Angeles and other urban centers, state leaders hope.

While the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws have helped improve air quality, soot and other pollutants still compromise lung and heart health. State officials project the new rule will result in 1,290 fewer cardiopulmonary deaths and 650 fewer emergency room visits for asthma by 2040.

Lauren Sanchez, senior climate adviser to Newsom, called the proposal “one of the most important efforts California has ever carried out to move the state away from oil and clean the air.”

More on climate change

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Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

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