In summary

In a dramatic move to tackle climate change, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced today that he has ordered the Air Resources Board to ban new models of traditional cars beginning in 15 years.

In a dramatic move to tackle climate change, Gov. Gavin Newsom today ordered state officials to ban new gasoline-powered cars within 15 years. 

California has for longer than half a century been a leader in driving new, cleaner car technologies with its regulations. Today, Newsom raised the stakes: On the hood of an all-electric red Ford Mustang Mach-E, he signed a new executive order that aims to eliminate new models of traditional cars and put more vehicles powered by clean technologies such as fuel cells and batteries on California’s roads. 

The order also tackles fossil fuel pollution before it comes out of tailpipes, tasking California lawmakers with putting an end to new fracking permits by 2024. The Newsom administration’s approval of new oil and natural gas fracking permits this summer has drawn criticism from environmental groups

Taking aim at Californians’ beloved cars is a risky political move, especially amid an economic crisis. And the state’s power to enact a ban will hinge on the presidential election, and will likely be tested in court, according to some legal experts. 

Car companies Honda and Ford applauded the announcement. But some automakers, including General Motors and Toyota, are likely to mount an aggressive campaign to fight the order, saying it is a massive undertaking that requires an overhaul of fuel infrastructure, building codes and consumer demand.

“[Opposing companies] will have to recover economically, not just recover in terms of being able to look their kids and grandkids in the eyes.” 

gov. gavin newsom

“Neither mandates nor bans build successful markets,” Alliance for Automotive Innovation President and CEO John Bozzella said in a statement. “What builds successful markets is widespread stakeholder engagement: a combination of efforts by federal, state, and local governments, as well as automakers, dealers, utilities, hydrogen providers, electric infrastructure providers, builders, and others.” 

California is already waging battles on multiple fronts with the Trump administration over the state’s power to clean its air and cut greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Some political consultants said they are concerned that Newsom’s order will add ammunition for President Donald Trump and other Republicans during their campaigns in the November elections.

But Newsom pitched the order as an economic boon. California is home to 34 electric vehicle manufacturers, he said. And electric vehicles make up the state’s second-biggest export, according to Newsom. 

“This is the next big global industry, and California wants to dominate it. And that’s in detoxifying and decarbonizing our transportation fleets,” Newsom said. “And so today, California is making a big, bold move in that direction.”

Carmakers that oppose the move will find themselves “on the wrong side of history,” Newsom said. “And they’ll have to recover economically, not just recover in terms of being able to look their kids and grandkids in the eyes.”   

The news comes on the heels of Newsom’s declaration that California is facing “a climate damn emergency.” Wildfires and record-breaking heat have ravaged the state in recent weeks, choking residents with smoke as 3.6 million acres burn. Droughts also are amplified by climate change.

“Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse and create more days filled with smoky air. Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines,” Newsom said today in a statement. 

Newsom’s executive order will not take anybody’s car away. Californians could still drive and resell their gas-powered vehicles. But it does direct the Air Resources Board to phase out sales of new gas-powered passenger vehicles and certain freight trucks by 2035, and medium and heavy duty trucks by 2045 “where feasible.” 

“It is hereby ordered that” the State Air Resources Board will develop “regulations requiring increasing volumes of new zero-emission vehicles sold in the State towards the target of 100 percent of in-state sales by 2035,” the order says.

The rules, once drafted, would have to go through the traditional regulatory process of the Air Resources Board, including legal, economic and environmental analyses, and public comment and hearings.

Oil companies pushed back on the executive order, saying electric cars are unaffordable for most people and fossil fuels must be “part of any solution.”

“It’s interesting that the governor was standing in front of nearly $200,000 worth of electric vehicles as he told Californians that their reliable and affordable cars and trucks would soon be unwelcome in our state,” Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn., said in a statement. “Big and bold ideas are only better if they are affordable for us all and can be backed by science, data and needed infrastructure. And, our industry and the energy we provide will be the part of any solution.”

Zero-emission vehicles in 2019 made up only about 2% of the cars on California’s roads, 560,000 out of more than 28.4 million.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents companies with both conventional and battery-powered cars, said that demand for zero-emission cars is low. “Currently, electrified vehicles account for less than 10 percent of new vehicle sales in California,” Bozzella said. “While that is the best in the nation, much more needs to be done to increase consumer demand for Zero Emission Vehicles in order for California to reach its goals.” 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom hands a newly signed executive order, which requires all new passenger vehicles sold in the state to be zero-emission by 2035, to California Air Resources Board chair Mary Nichols on Sept. 23, 2020, at Cal Expo in Sacramento. Photo by Daniel Kim, The Sacramento Bee via AP/Pool

Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democrat from San Francisco who has long pushed for cleaner transportation, supported the governor’s announcement. “The fastest way to make the biggest dent in slowing the effects of global warming is to embrace cleaner cars. Many other countries have already committed to this goal, and I’ve been working tirelessly for years to make this transition happen in California.” 

Some nations in Europe, including Norway, France and the UK, already have adopted bans on new internal combustion engine cars, with various targets from 2025 to 2040.

Whatever happens in California with cars usually drives nationwide changes, since the state has such a large percentage of the nation’s vehicles. Fourteen states follow California’s clean-car rules, 11 of which also follow the state’s zero emission vehicles program. Combined, they make up nearly a third of the market for new car sales. 

The state has flirted with banning gas-powered vehicles before. Last May, Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols alluded to a potential ban if California and the federal government continued to butt heads. 

California since the 1960s has taken the lead in curbing emissions from cars and trucks, beginning with mandates that led to catalytic converters cleaning up exhaust that created the state’s severe smog. Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution, smog and diesel exhaust in the state. 

California will soon require sales of electric trucks, starting in 2024. But these kinds of rules require federal permission. And the Trump administration has yanked California’s unique authority to regulate greenhouse gas pollution in tailpipe emissions from cars and pickup trucks. The move jeopardized the state’s long-standing zero-emission vehicles program, originally developed to combat smog.

“Big and bold ideas are only better if they are affordable for us all”

Cathy Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Assn.

Now, California is fighting to maintain its clean car authority in court. And in the meantime, the state struck a deal with five major automakers — BMW, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and Volvo. The car companies agreed to recognize California’s authority in return for a more relaxed schedule to meet the state’s greenhouse gas requirements

Ford and Honda said that they are looking forward to working with California to develop the best way to implement the restrictions.

“We agree with Governor Newsom that it’s time to take urgent action to address climate change. That’s why we’re proud to stand with California in achieving meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions in our vehicles,” Ford spokesperson Debra Hotaling said in a statement. 

Ford today launched an advertising campaign spotlighting its decision to align with the state and slamming the car companies that didn’t. 

“California asked all automakers to cut greenhouse gas emissions and fight for cleaner air,” the ad says against a backdrop of palm trees and the song California Dreamin’. “Chevy, Jeep and Toyota said no. Ford said yes.”

Honda spokesperson Briana Washington told CalMatters that the company is  “committed to reducing CO2 emissions from our vehicles. Toward that end, we have previously announced our intention to make electrified vehicles comprise two-thirds of our global automobile sales by 2030.”

California has already pledged to not buy cars for government fleets from automakers that spurned its clean car deal, including General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota. And at a meeting with the California Transportation Commission last year, Nichols spoke vaguely of “potentially looking at things like fees, taxes and bans on certain types of vehicles and products.” 

But Nichols’ prewritten remarks, obtained by Bloomberg, were starker, saying that federal clean car rollbacks could prompt the air board to look for other ways to curb pollution, including “an outright ban on internal combustion engines.” 

At the time, Meredith Hankins, then a Shapiro fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, told CalMatters that such a ban would be difficult to get past the federal Environmental Protection Agency. 

“It may be sort of dead on arrival under this current administration,” Hankins said last year. And going around the EPA is “an untested legal question.”

“Newsom can’t claim climate leadership while handing out permits to oil companies to drill and frack.”

Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute

Under the Clean Air Act, California must receive permission from the US EPA in the form of a waiver to implement clean car rules that differ from the federal government’s. And this would be no exception, said Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at the University of California Los Angeles. 

“So the policy is highly dependent on who is elected President,” Carlson said. Trump’s  EPA already has revoked the waiver for California’s tailpipe greenhouse gas standards, which California is fighting in court. “There’s no chance he’d grant an even stronger one,” Carlson said. 

The air board’s Nichols laughed when asked about the waiver in a press briefing today, and indicated that California would seek federal permission. “We believe the Clean Air Act gives us the authority to set exactly the kinds of standards that we have set since the late ‘60s,” Nichols said. “And therefore we look forward to being able to do that in the future.” 

The pot of money that helps fund clean vehicle incentives has taken a hit in the state’s budget crisis. But Newsom reiterated a commitment to bring it back, particularly when the economy rebounds. “You’ll be seeing a lot more in this space in my January budget,” he said.  

Oil companies were dismayed by the executive order’s stance on fracking, with the California Independent Petroleum Association warning it could harm economic recovery and kill jobs.

But environmental groups weren’t all overjoyed either. The Center for Biological Diversity said the directives on fracking were rhetoric rather than real action.

“Newsom can’t claim climate leadership while handing out permits to oil companies to drill and frack. He has the power to protect Californians from oil industry pollution, and he needs to use it, not pass the buck,” Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement.

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Rachel Becker is a reporter with a background in scientific research. After studying the links between the brain and the immune system, Rachel left the lab bench with her master's degree to become a journalist...