United States President Joe Biden signed an executive order yesterday that calls for 50% of his country’s new cars to be electric vehicles or hybrids by 2030, just days after the Senate adopted a $1.2-trillion infrastructure package that was widely seen as just a downpayment on the White House’s commitment to climate action.
The order was one part of a “far-reaching, multi-pronged 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 Washington Post reports. “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.”
General Motors and Ford chimed in with a joint statement committing to a 40 to 50% target by 2030, Reuters says.
The Post describes a collection of new targets and mandates the White House spent months negotiating with automakers, automotive unions, and environmental groups. At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation were to release new emissions and energy efficiency standards for cars, sport utility vehicles, and pick-up trucks through the 2026 model year, ending with a 52-mile-per-gallon fleet average for fuel consumption.
“Today, labour and industry, state and local leaders, are all working together to write the next chapter in the American story,” Biden said in a statement from the South Lawn of the White House. “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.”
Beyond 2026, “the Biden team is also kicking off its push to set longer-term pollution standards for everything from tiny sedans to huge semi-trailers made in the second half of the decade,” the Post adds. “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% of the fuel used today is derived from petroleum.”
The new rules through 2026 are modelled on tailpipe standards set by the California Air Resources Board in 2019, and Governor Gavin Newsom said he liked what he saw. “We’ve been heating up, choking up, and burning up on the West Coast of the United States,” he told the Post yesterday. “We’ve been waiting for this announcement for years.”
Bloomberg Green columnist Nat Bullard published a chart yesterday showing electric vehicle and digital investments consuming 58% of Volkswagen’s capital expenditures, 52% of Stellantis’ (the conglomerate that now includes Fiat Chrysler), 51% of GM’s, and 47% of Ford’s over the last year, with Mercedes-Benz lagging at 33%.
“Capital expenditure is so important because it’s the culmination of a manufacturer’s multi-year exploration of the future,” Bullard wrote. “It begins in the corporate strategy suite, flows into the research wing, and winds up in the commitment of tens of billions of dollars in equipment. Strategies are flexible, as is research, but capital equipment—purchased and configured for specific designs and models—is relatively rigid,” making capital expenditure for EVs “a promise that can’t be easily undone or repurposed.”
But Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said environmental groups tried to push the administration beyond the California standard, adding that this week’s announcement wouldn’t make up for ground lost during the deregulatory years of Donald Trump. “They are not really forcing the industry to do a full course correction,” he warned. “It puts us far behind where we need to be.”
Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign, added that the White House plan “relies on unenforceable voluntary commitments from unreliable car makers.” Those auto industry promises, he said, “make a New Year’s weight loss resolution look like a legally binding contract.”
The Post has more on the mixed reaction to the announcement.
Yesterday’s announcement came after weeks of negotiations and speculation on the ultimate shape of a $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill the White House hammered out with Congressional Democrats and Republicans that focuses on the country’s energy, transportation, and water systems. In the end, the bill passed with a 67-32 Senate vote with 17 Republicans signing on, Utility Dive reports.
The Hill says some of the highlights of the final package include:
• $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging;
• $7.5 billion for “clean energy” school buses and ferries, a category that includes only $2.5 billion clearly earmarked for zero-emission vehicles and makes allowances for natural- or LNG-powered transportation;
• $6 billion in “cleaner power” funding with “fewer provisions for renewables sources like solar power” and more emphasis on nuclear and carbon capture technologies;
• A national grid resilience program, including $1 billion for rural grids;
• Loan and grant programs for energy-efficient buildings.
BNN Bloomberg also lists $8 billion for four hydrogen hubs that could rely on natural gas, nuclear generation, or even coal, as well as renewable electricity. And an action alert this week from Transportation for America urged supporters to push their senators to shift some of the key provisions in the plan.
The bill contains “some exciting new investments in things like electric vehicles” and “a modest amount to tear down divisive freeways,” but “falls far short of our core goals of prioritizing maintenance, safety, and access,” the Washington, DC-based organization stated.
“While there’s indeed a historic amount of transit funding, it comes with an equally historic amount for roads and zero requirement to prioritize repair,” the email added. “The status quo means extra hoops for transit projects to jump through while ineffective highway expansion projects sail through with extra funding and no strings attached. Status quo means states continuing to get ever-increasing amounts of money to design streets that are dangerous by design, with no penalty for the skyrocketing numbers of deaths.”
All in all, the legislation “falls far short of President Joe Biden’s pledge to transform the nation’s heavily fossil fuel-powered economy into a clean-burning one and stop climate-damaging emissions from U.S. power plants by 2035,” The Associated Press writes. “Notably, the deal omits mention of a Clean Electricity Standard, a key element of Biden’s climate plan that would require the electric grid to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower.”
It also leaves out the earlier promise of a Civilian Climate Corps, “a Biden favourite and a nod to the Great Depression-era New Deal that would put millions of Americans to work on conservation projects, renewable energy and helping communities recover from climate disasters,” AP adds.
The bill does provide “new money for climate resilience unmatched in United States history: Tens of billions of dollars to protect against floods, reduce damage from wildfires, develop new sources of drinking water in areas plagued by drought, and even relocate entire communities away from vulnerable places,” the New York Times reports. “But the bill is remarkable for another reason. For the first time, both parties have acknowledged—by their actions, if not their words—that the United States is unprepared for the worsening effects of climate change and requires an enormous and urgent infusion of money and effort to get ready.”
“It’s difficult to oppose solutions to crises that your constituents are suffering through,” said Shalini Vajjhala, a former Obama administration official who now advises cities on preparing for climate threats.
Through the period leading up to the bill’s release, it’s been clear that the White House’s initial plans would have to be scaled back to win enough votes in a U.S. Senate that is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans—with the added challenge that some Democrats have been working hard to dampen Biden’s ambition. There’s been a wave of expectation that Democrats will follow this legislation with a much larger, $3.5-trillion climate investment package, including the crucial Clean Electricity Standard, designed to pass on a simple majority vote, rather than the 60% required under arcane Senate rules to avoid a filibuster on major legislation.
“While there is much to celebrate in this product of our bipartisan efforts, more work still needs to be done,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said Monday. “Collectively, we’ve incorporated badly needed climate provisions in surface transportation, water, power, and a number of other infrastructure programs. But, in truth, we have—in the words of Robert Frost—’miles to go before we sleep, miles to go before we sleep.'”