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Tighter vehicle emission standards are a tightrope for Biden

Slowing demand, charging network concerns, louder opposition at play during election year

Texas Republican Rep. Roger Williams says, “I’m not against EVs, but I’m for competition.”
Texas Republican Rep. Roger Williams says, “I’m not against EVs, but I’m for competition.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The drive toward electric vehicles is becoming increasingly treacherous for the Biden administration, with many in Congress, the auto industry and car-loving America saying the transition away from gasoline-powered engines should be slowed.

The EPA, which proposed strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks last spring, and the Department of Transportation, which followed up in the summer with a plan to require significant improvements in fuel economy, have said little in the past six months about what the final rules will look like.

The tandem regulations are aimed at forcing manufacturers to produce more zero-emission vehicles over the next decade.

The EPA and DOT’s National Highway Transportation Safety Administration responded through email to inquiries, noting that the rules are still under review. An EPA spokesperson said the agency is nearing an interagency review stage and NHTSA said its standards are expected to be finalized in the spring.

The radio silence from regulators contrasts sharply with the cacophony of resistance from congressional Republicans, and even some Democrats, concerned about the rush toward EVs being promoted by the administration in response to climate change.

They argue that the two rules would effectively mandate a transition to electric despite scarce charging infrastructure across the country and hesitancy among consumers to make the switch. It would also increase U.S. reliance on China, they say, as China dominates key parts of the EV supply chain like mining, processing and refining battery minerals.

“What we see is a situation where the manufacturers and the government are trying to shove these EVs down people’s throats,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, at a Washington D.C. Auto Show event. “I’m not against EVs, but I’m for competition. And we don’t have that right now.”

Republicans in the House and Senate have led legislative charges aimed at blocking EPA and NHTSA from imposing the rules as proposed. Rep. John James, R-Mich., in January led a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., urging them to include language in the fiscal 2024 spending bills that would prevent NHTSA from finalizing and implementing the fuel economy standards.

“[W]e believe NHTSA exceeded statutory constraints on its authority in how it reached the recommended levels in this proposed rule, creating yet another example of Executive Branch overreach driven by radical rush-to-green policy outcomes,” James wrote in the letter, which garnered roughly 90 signatures from other GOP members.

The House in December passed a bill that would prevent EPA from finalizing and imposing its rule. Five Democrats, including Reps. Mary Peltola of Alaska and Jared Golden of Maine, voted for it. Similar language was included in the chamber’s fiscal 2024 Interior-Environment spending bill, aimed at preventing funds from being used to enforce the EPA rule “or any similar rule.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also attempted to oust NHTSA’s former acting administrator, Ann Carlson, in October over the fuel economy standards with an amendment to the Senate’s three-bill spending package.

“What we have seen under Joe Biden is a relentless war on, number one, oil and gas production in the United States, and number two, the internal combustion engine,” Cruz said in an interview last week. “The Biden administration wants to raise the price of gasoline … so that you go sell your F-150 pickup truck or you go sell your minivan and you go buy an electric car.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, who represents a heavily Democratic district in southeastern Michigan that is at the core of the U.S. auto industry, generally supports a transition to EVs and alternative vehicles, but has signaled the timeline the rules set out might be tight.

“Here’s the reality, like it or not, we need to look at all the other alternative technologies,” she said at the Washington Auto Show. “But we have to then make sure that there is an infrastructure out there for people to be able to charge those vehicles. … These are all real issues that we have to work together on.”

Neither the NHTSA nor EPA commented on opposition coming from Capitol Hill, although EPA said it was working to address the more than 250,000 public comments in its final rule.

Industry concerns

Most manufacturers of cars and trucks sold in America say they are on board with the shift toward EVs, but question whether the EPA and NHTSA are trying to force a transition too quickly.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents 43 automotive companies and suppliers producing nearly all the passenger vehicles sold in the U.S., said in comments to the EPA in July that the administration’s goal of EVs constituting 67 percent of new cars sold by 2032 to be “neither reasonable nor achievable in the time frame covered in this proposal.”

“Auto Innovators does not believe they can be met without substantially increasing the cost of vehicles, reducing consumer choice, and disadvantaging major portions of the United States population and territory,” the automakers said.

The United Auto Workers, which represents employees at General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler parent Stellantis NV, echoed the concerns in separate comments to the EPA. The union noted that more than half the vehicles sold in the U.S. are pickup trucks and SUVs, which have much higher power requirements.

“We fear the proposed standards are premature and risk disrupting the market that will make the EV transition possible,” the UAW said. “We urge EPA to continue to work with all key stakeholders to ensure the new rules do not disproportionately impact domestic union auto production.”

The union endorsed Biden on Wednesday after initially reserving judgment over how workers will be treated as the administration pushes a shift to EVs.

Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, said he expects the EPA to soften the regulations to give U.S. manufacturers more time to comply while still meeting consumer demands for top-selling vehicles like the Ford F-Series, Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram pickups.

“If they modify it might give the industry a couple more years” to make the transition, Sperling said. “What this is really about is SUVs and pickups. They don’t sell those in those other markets. And those are the profit-makers, and the hardest to electrify if they’re the same size.”

The administration is in a tight spot.

If the agencies ease the regulations, environmentalists and progressives will be furious, and the administration could be sending a message to consumers that it isn’t serious about the push toward EVs. If they stick with strict emission limits and higher fuel economy standards, the political heat from conservatives — and many motorists — will intensify at a time when the president is struggling in the polls.

Thanks in part to generous tax incentives provided by the 2022 climate, tax and health care law, sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids reached record levels in 2023, with 1.36 million sold, or 8.8 percent of the 15.5 million new vehicles bought in America.

But there are signs that the EV market is slowing, as concerns grow about costs, reliability and access to charging infrastructure.

“Pricing is still very much the biggest barrier to electric vehicles,” Yanina Mills, senior technical research analyst at S&P Global Mobility, said in November in a statement about the firm’s most recent survey of prospective car buyers.

Two-thirds of respondents in 2023 were open to buying an EV, a 19 percent drop from 2021, the survey said.

Biden administration officials continue to point to the EV tax credits and new funding announcements for electric vehicle charging infrastructure to assuage transition anxieties. When asked about the fuel economy standards at the Washington Auto Show last week, DOT Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg responded, “Stay tuned.”

“I feel like this coming year, we’re going to see a dramatic increase both in charging, reliability and availability,” Trottenberg said. “We’ve been hearing from all parts of the industry and want to make sure that … we’re continuing this incredible growth and innovation in the EV space.”

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