Mustang Mach-E
California's governor chose to sign his executive order on the hood of an electric 2020 Ford Mustang Mach-E, pictured above at a recent car show. (Photo credit: Craig James / Wikimedia)

Can California really do it? Can it completely ban the sale of new gas-powered cars in 15 years – 15 years – and lead the country toward a fossil fuel-free future?

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom says so. In a late September executive order, Newsom announced a ban on in-state sales of new gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035, and medium- and heavy-duty trucks by 2045. Newsom isn’t the first politician to make such moves – several countries in Europe including Norway, the Netherlands, France, the UK, and Denmark have set similar goals. But he is the first governor in the U.S. to take that step. And California, the fifth largest economy in the world, sets trends – economic, environmental, cultural – that often reverberate across the nation and the world.

Still, the executive order only sets goals for 2035 and 2045. And it will still allow people to drive gas-powered automobiles after 2035, and also sell used ones. In other words, internal combustion engines aren’t disappearing anytime soon after 2035.

It’s still unclear exactly how California will pursue Newsom’s ambitions – or to what extent his executive order will outlive the first-term governor’s time in office. But he has ordered the state’s powerful Air Resources Board to immediately begin developing new “passenger vehicle and truck 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.”

It will be interesting to see what those regulations actually look like.

Newsom’s order includes other aggressive measures too. Along with passenger cars and trucks in 2035, it sets the goal of a full transition to zero-emission drayage trucks – the big diesel-powered haulers that transport shipping containers and bulk to and from the state’s ports, rail yards, and other locations. Also by 2035, Newsom wants to transition all off-road vehicles and equipment to zero emissions “where feasible.”

Newsom’s order separately calls for the state to achieve “carbon neutrality by no later than 2045” and for the state government to “expedite regulatory processes to repurpose and transition upstream and downstream oil production facilities.” In his announcement, Newsom said he is asking the state Legislature to stop issuing new permits for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) by 2024.

Comes amidst state’s worst fire season on record

Newsom’s announcement came as California has faced its worst fire season on record. As of mid-October, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) estimated that nearly 8,500 fires had burned 4.1 million acres across the state. There is broad scientific consensus that climate change has been a key driver of these fires, as fire seasons across the state and the West have started earlier and ended later each year over the past several decades. Drought and infestations by bark beetles have ravaged the Sierra, killing hundreds of millions of trees and leaving tinder dry fuel as easy kindling.

Under pressure from environmental interests to take bolder action on fighting climate change, Newson at his announcement drew a direct connection between his order and that fight: “Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse – and create more days filled with smoky air,” he said.

Despite in-state pressures to act, Newsom faces legal and political opposition in Washington. The state is already in a legal fight with the Trump Administration to preserve its ability to set its own vehicle mileage standards. For half a century, California has obtained waivers under the federal Clean Air Act to set its own standards. More than a dozen other states over time have followed California’s lead and adopted similar standards, which exceed the federal EPA standards applying to the rest of the country. The Trump administration has revoked the waiver and the state has sued, arguing that it has the right to set its own standards under the Air Act.

With that case continuing to wind its way through the court system, the Trump administration has criticized Newsom’s latest move, saying in a letter from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler that California faces an uphill battle to ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles and replace them with electric cars – and not just for political reasons.

“California’s record of rolling blackouts – unprecedented in size and scope – coupled with recent requests to neighboring states for power begs the question of how you expect to run an electric car fleet that will come with significant increases in electricity demand, when you can’t even keep the lights on today,” Wheeler wrote.

It’s a point that has some merit, and it’s unclear if California’s plans to increase its supply of green energy in coming decades will match increasing demands for electrical power.

A Biden-Harris administration would likely back the idea of Newsom’s executive order – although it’s not certain that their EPA would give California carte blanche on such a massive change in transportation. The Democratic candidate views an expansion of electric vehicles as a big opportunity to boost the national economy and address climate change, Biden spokesman Matt Hill told Politico in an October 2 story adding “he’s got a plan to do that and thinks of it in terms of incentives and investments, not bans.”

Huge task, huge challenges … also a potentially huge market

In California, the transportation sector accounts for more than half of California’s carbon emissions, 80 percent of smog-forming pollution, and 95 percent of diesel emissions, Newsom noted during his announcement.

It will be a gargantuan task to electrify the state’s transportation sector. California is home to 40 million people, and at the end of 2019 there were 36.4 million vehicles registered in the state. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), California had about 256,800 electric vehicle registrations at the end of 2018 – by far the most of any other state, but still a tiny percentage compared with the total number of cars on the state’s roadways.

The electric vehicle (EV) market is growing in California – in 2018 EVs were California’s 8th most valuable export, valued at nearly $3 billion.

Elon Musk, CEO of California-based Tesla, Inc., said recently that he expects his company to make 20 million electric vehicles annually before 2030 – 50 times more than what it produced in 2019.

But even if Californians can access enough electric vehicles to meet the state’s goals, it will also need the infrastructure to support them. Newsom certainly recognizes this reality, and his executive order includes additional measures, among them:

  • the development of a “Zero-Emissions Vehicle Market Development Strategy” by Jan. 31, 2021, to identify what will be needed to create the markets needed for the transition;
  • an accelerated deployment of “affordable fueling and charging options for zero-emission vehicles, in ways that serve all communities and in particular low-income and disadvantaged communities”; and
  • an update to the biennial statewide assessment of ZEV infrastructure needed overall to support the order.

The price of electric vehicles, meanwhile, has come down dramatically but many people still view them as a luxury purchase. Charging stations will also have to be ubiquitous, affordable, and accessible everywhere. And, people who live in California’s rural regions, where travel distances are long and often remote – along with those who regularly drive out-of-state – will almost certainly be slower to adopt electric vehicles as daily drivers.

At the end of 2017, nearly 14,000 public charging stations, including 1,500 direct current fast chargers, were installed around the state, according to a 2018 report from the California Energy Commission. (Plugshare is one website that offers maps showing the location of charging stations in California. However, the state will need to install 250,000 EV chargers to support five million-plus electric vehicles on the state’s roadways, the report noted. Looking toward mid-century and the prospect of a full adoption of electric vehicles, California will need many more than 250,000 before gas-powered vehicles become a thing of the past.

As expected, Newsom’s announcement met with skepticism. John Bozella, CEO of the automotive industry group, Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said in a statement that auto companies are committed to producing electric vehicles, “but neither mandates nor bans build successful markets.” In a blog post two days later, he suggested that people won’t turn to electric vehicles so long as gas prices remain consistently low. Which presumably is not meant to suggest that anyone now knows what a gallon of gas will cost in 2035.

Chet Thompson, head of the lobbying group American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, was more blunt in his opposition. “Pursuing this goal would be among the most inefficient, unpopular, and regressive methods to reduce carbon emissions,” he said after Newsom’s announcement.

Still, some automakers are on board with Newsom’s plans. Ford Motor Co. expressed support in a statement reported in Bloomberg Green. “We agree with Governor Newsom that it’s time to take urgent action to address climate change,” Ford said. “That’s why we’re proud to stand with California in achieving meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions in our vehicles.”

In August, California had finalized an agreement with Ford, BMW, Honda, Volkswagen, and Volvo that sets annual fuel efficiency improvements that are more in line with Obama-era requirements than those the Trump Administration has called for. That deal will mean those companies will produce vehicles that average 51 mpg by 2026, rather than 40 mpg which the Trump Administration is requiring.

With some big-name automakers behind him, Newsom made a point of signing his executive order on the hood of a Ford Mustang Mach E electric vehicle.

“This is the next big global industry, and California wants to dominate it,” he said. “… And so today, California is making a big, bold move in that direction.”

Also see: Concerns over California vehicle waiver issues

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...