In what may be the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine in the United States, California air regulators are set to vote Thursday on landmark new rules to prohibit the sale of all new gasoline-powered cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickups in the state by 2035.
The rules are among the most far-reaching environmental law in California in the past 50 years, and although major challenges remain, including the cost of new electric vehicles and the availability of charging stations, California’s decision is expected to be copied by other states, reshaping the American auto industry.
“Our previous regulations to make cars cleaner made improvements,” said Liane Randolph, chair of the California Air Resources Board, on Wednesday. “But those were incremental. This regulation will essentially end vehicle emissions altogether.”
The first-in-the-nation rules, aimed at dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and smog, won’t ban gasoline-powered cars already on the road. Nor will they prohibit the sale of used ones after 2035.
But they will require 35% of all new passenger vehicles that auto companies offer for sale in California starting in 2026 to be zero-emission — basically electric, plug-in hybrid or fuel cell — ramping up to 68% by 2030 and 100% by 2035.
Environmental and public health groups are cheering the rules, which were set in motion by an executive order two years ago from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“This is a really important, historic turning point in cleaning up pollution,” said William Barrett, national clean air advocacy director for the American Lung Association. “Vehicles are a leading reason California has the most difficult air pollution challenges in the United States.”
Passenger vehicles account for 29% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other source, including all factories and power plants. The air board estimates the new rules will cut greenhouse gas emissions 50% from cars and light trucks by 2040, the equivalent of avoiding burning 915 million barrels of oil.
The rules also will require tougher smog standards for new gasoline vehicles over the next decade, leading to 1,200 fewer cardiopulmonary deaths due to air pollution by 2040, the air board projects.
Opponents, led by the oil industry, say electric cars are still too expensive for the average person. Phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles, critics say, could lead to refineries leaving the state, gas stations shutting down and other hassles over the next decade for motorists who want to hang on to their traditional cars, which in the coming years could become increasingly obsolete.
“There are huge costs and logistical concerns that aren’t being addressed,” said Kevin Slagle, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. “We acknowledge there is climate change. But you can’t force people into vehicles that don’t work for them. By forcing people too soon, you may spark a backlash.”
The auto industry, which has been ramping up the number of electric vehicles it offers for sale, does not oppose the new rules. But it wants the air board to regularly review vehicle costs, availability of battery materials, and charging station numbers to see if the targets need to be adjusted.
“These are, without question, the most sweeping and transformative regulations in the history of the automobile industry,” said Steve Douglas, vice president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a leading industry trade group, in a letter to the air board last month.
“Automakers will work to meet the standards,” Douglas wrote, “but the board should be aware the proposed requirements will be extremely challenging.”
Because of the burning of fossil fuels, which trap heat in the atmosphere, the Earth’s climate is steadily warming. The 10 hottest years since 1880 when modern temperature records began all have occurred since 2005, according to NASA and NOAA, the agency that runs the National Weather Service.
The hotter temperatures have led to increased wildfires, more severe droughts, sea level rise and other problems. California has led efforts to reduce fossil fuel burning, passing laws to require renewable energy such as solar and wind and providing tax breaks and other incentives for electric vehicles. The state’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2004 and have fallen 14% since then.
Already, California is the nation’s leading electric vehicle market. So far this year, 16% of all new cars, or one in six, sold in California are electric. The two top-selling passenger vehicles overall this year statewide are both electric, the Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model Y.
Other states and federal leaders have done little to reduce emission. Some have opposed efforts to reduce coal, oil and other fossil fuels — mostly Republicans such as former President Trump, who denied the science, tried to block California from setting its own standards, and said that climate change was a Chinese hoax to harm the American economy.
Under the Clean Air Act, California is allowed to pass stricter air pollution laws than the federal government and other states can copy them. Currently, 16 states with about 40% of the U.S. population, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and most of New England, have adopted California’s clean air rules. Many are expected to approve their own phase-outs of electric vehicles.
Two key questions loom. First, will there be enough charging stations? Second, will people be able to afford the new cars?
There are now about 80,000 charging stations in California, according to the California Energy Commission. The state needs 1.2 million by 2030, the commission estimates, to meet the coming electric vehicle demand. Air board officials noted Wednesday that Gov. Gavin Newsom has put $10 billion in the state budget to help build charging stations and offer other incentives to reduce the price of electric vehicles.
As for sticker price, the average cost of a new electric car in the U.S. is $66,997, up 13.7% from a year ago, according to a recent study by Kelley Blue book. The average cost for a new gasoline-powered passenger vehicle is $48,043 — up 12.7% from a year earlier.
Randolph and and other air board officials said Wednesday that as numbers ramp up, they expect electric cars to cost the same as gasoline cars by 2030. They cited studies showing electric vehicles cost up to 50% less to operate and maintain because drivers don’t have to buy gasoline, have oil changes and other expenses.
Supporters of the rule note that although Teslas can regularly exceed $75,000, there are other models of new electric vehicles that are far cheaper. A new Nissan Leaf, for example, starts at $28,495, while a Chevy Bolt starts at $32,495 and a VW ID.4 has a starting price of $42,525.
More than 40 other countries around the world have already committed to similar phase-outs. Many, including Germany, Great Britain, Israel and Sweden, have a ban that begins in 2030, five years before California’s. Others, such as Canada, China, Italy and South Korea have a 2035 phase-out date. And others have committed to a 2040 deadline, including India, Mexico, New Zealand, and Spain.
“In the coming years, we’ll see a wider range of electric vehicles on the road — everything from passenger vehicles to SUVs,” said Barrett. “There will be a robust network of charging stations, as common as gasoline stations you see now. It will just be a normal part of everyday life. As the vehicle population ages, gasoline vehicles will increasingly replaced with vehicles that don’t pollute.”