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The EV revolution hinges on upcoming emissions rule

The speed in which automakers will have to phase out their gas-powered vehicles in favor of ones that are all-electric will be determined Wednesday, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release its new vehicle emissions rules.

Environmental groups are hoping for a sped-up timeline that will put the country on the path to an all-electric fleet by the early part of next decade, while automakers are pushing for a slower adoption that allows the industry to meet consumers’ needs.

First announced in April 2023, the EPA’s original proposal would have resulted in battery-electric vehicles accounting for 37 percent by 2027, 60 percent by 2030, and 67 percent by 2032 — a dramatic increase over the current EV sales numbers of around 8 percent.

Environmental groups are hoping for a sped-up timeline

But the auto industry favors an alternative pathway that would result in EVs hitting 50 percent of vehicle sales by 2030, arguing it is a more realistic timeline for automakers that have been struggling to produce EVs at the right price point for consumers.

And it seems that the White House is open to those arguments, signaling in recent weeks its preference to delay its timeline in order to better align with the auto industry’s position. The New York Times recently reported that the EPA was open to giving automakers more time to slash emissions, outlining details that most closely align with “Alternative 3” from its proposal. That standard would result in the same endpoint as the EPA’s proposal: a 56 percent reduction in fleetwide average carbon emissions by 2032, compared with 2026.

But the cuts would be significantly slower under Alternative 3, mandating reductions of average emissions of 12 percent for 2026 to 2027, rather than 18 percent under the original proposal. The emissions rules set performance standards based on grams of CO2 per mile, but they don’t require automakers to sell EVs. Requiring steeper cuts in emissions would essentially force the auto industry to sell more EVs with zero tailpipe emissions in order to comply with the standards.

Slowing the transition would essentially give automakers license to keep selling polluting vehicles longer. This has environmentalists up in arms, arguing a delay will result in hundreds of millions of more tons of heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere than under the more aggressive rules.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), for example, notes that many of the vehicles built in 2032 — the year the original proposal calls for over two-thirds of vehicles sold to be battery-electric — will likely still be on the road in 2050 when global climate emissions need to be near zero to avoid a climate catastrophe. By requiring declining average pollution levels, automakers are ensured to deliver cleaner cars — either from lower emission gasoline vehicles or zero-tailpipe emission EVs. 

“The stakes frankly have never been higher,” Don Anair, UCS’s deputy director for clean transportation, wrote earlier this month.

The cuts would be significantly slower under Alternative 3

The auto industry, meanwhile, was irked by the omission of plug-in hybrid vehicles from the EPA’s proposal, arguing they are a good bridge toward a fully electric fleet. It also wants to see better coordination between the EPA and other emissions requirements from the Department of Transportation and Department of Energy — as well as the California Air Resources Board.

Experts agree that regardless of the particulars of the final rule, the overall outcome will be a wholesale, historic change in the types of cars people drive and the air they breath.

“I strongly believe that EPA final actions on both cars and trucks will be the single most important climate regulation in the history of the country,” said Margo Oge, former senior executive director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, in a briefing with reporters.

“There may be disagreement, how fast, how much,” Oge added, “but in my experience … the country needs to move forward by moving away from fossil fuels.”

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