California Governor Gavin Newsom made a bold attempt today to ban sales of new gas-guzzling cars and trucks, marking a critical step in the state’s quest to become carbon neutral by 2045. But the effort to clean up the state’s largest source of climate emissions is almost certain to face serious legal challenges, particularly if President Donald Trump is re-elected in November.
Newsom issued an executive order that directs state agencies, including the California Air Resources Board, to develop regulations requiring every new passenger car and truck sold in the state to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2035. That pretty much limits future sales to electric vehicles (EVs) powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. Similar rules would go into effect for most medium and heavy-duty vehicles by 2045.
If those rules are enacted, the roughly 2 million new vehicles sold in the state each year will all suddenly be EVs, providing a huge boost to the still nascent sector.
“California policy, especially automotive policy, has cascading effects across the US and even internationally, just because of the scale of our market,” says Alissa Kendall, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis.
Indeed, the order would mean more auto companies will produce more EV lines, scaling up manufacturing and driving down costs. The growing market would, in turn, create greater incentives to build out the charging or hydrogen fueling infrastructure necessary to support it all.
The move also could make a big dent in transportation emissions. Passenger and heavy-duty vehicles together account for more than 35% of the state’s climate pollution, which has proven an especially tricky share to reduce in a sprawling state of car loving-residents (indeed, California’s vehicle emissions have been ticking up).
But Newsom’s executive order only goes so far. It doesn’t address planes, trains, or ships, and it could take another couple decades for residents to stop driving all the gas-powered vehicles already on the road.
Whether the rules go into effect at all, and to what degree, will depend on many variables, including what legal grounds the Air Resources Board uses to justify the policies, says Danny Cullenward, a lecturer at Stanford’s law school focused on environmental policy.
One likely route is for the board to base the new regulations on tailpipe emissions standards, which California has used in the past to force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles, and nudge national standards forward. But that approach may require obtaining a new waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency allowing the state to exceed the federal government’s vehicle emissions rules under the Clean Air Act, the source of an already heated battle between the state and the Trump administration.
Last year, Trump announced he would revoke California’s earlier waiver to set tighter standards, prompting the state and New York to sue. So whether California can pursue this route could depend on how courts view the issue and who is sitting in the White House come late January.
It’s very likely that the automotive industry will challenge the rules no matter how the state goes about drafting them. And the outcome of those cases could depend on which court it lands in–and, perhaps eventually, who is sitting on the Supreme Court.
But whatever legal hurdles it may face, California and other states need to rapidly cut auto emissions to have any hope of combating the rising threat of climate change, says Dave Weiskopf, senior policy advisor with NextGen Policy in Sacramento.
“This is what science requires and it’s the next logical step for state policy,” he says.