'Serious Concerns' Over Washington State's Proposed Ban on Registration of New Gas Passenger Cars

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Washington state would vault to the forefront of the movement to purge fossil fuels from automotive fleets under bills introduced in the Legislature to ban registration of new gas- and diesel-powered vehicles in 2030.

House Bill 1204 and Senate Bill 5256 cover new model passenger vehicles and light- duty trucks, and would kick in at the start of the next decade. The bills call for these vehicles — to be registered in Washington state — to use an electric battery or hydrogen. They put no sunset date on the ownership and sale of 2029 or earlier model gas- and diesel-powered vehicles.

Electric cars — if charged by power generated from sources such as wind, solar, nuclear or hydro — can be a key part of a global push to reduce carbon emissions that drive climate change. The push to electrify cars gained momentum last month when General Motors announced a goal of ending the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035.

But the Washington bills are facing behind-the-scenes pushback from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose legislative director has not submitted public testimony but in an email to two legislators expressed "serious concerns" about the bills.

In the Jan. 28 email, Yasmin Trudeau cautioned that should the proposal become law, it would face a swift legal challenge in federal court from opponents who would argue the state had exceeded its authority under the federal Clean Air Act. Trudeau wrote, "we would very likely lose in district court" and set an unfavorable precedent.

California is the only state granted an exemption from the federal Clean Air Act to set its own emission standards for automobiles. Other states, including Washington, can choose to follow the tougher California standards, which Gov. Gavin Newsom — in an executive order last year — said should include a 2035 end to sales of new gasoline and diesel-powered passenger vehicles.

But California's legal authority under the Clear Air Act exemption has come under attack through federal rule-making during the Trump administration, and is being litigated. And the new California 2035 standard — once it becomes a formal rule — also is likely to face legal challenges.

Trudeau, in her email, said that litigation filed against the Washington legislation could complicate efforts to move forward with the California phaseout of gas vehicles.

In response to a Seattle Times inquiry about the email, a spokesperson for Ferguson said the attorney general "supports the policy objective behind this legislation," and would defend any laws passed by the Legislature. The spokesperson, Brionna Aho, said, "To assist the Legislature with advancing the policy objectives of this legislation in a way most likely to survive legal challenge, we presented preliminary legal concerns for the Legislature to consider."

Proponents of the Washington bills say they have structured the legislation in a way they hope will sidestep that federal preemption against states other than California setting rules that regulate emissions standard, and thus survive a legal challenge.

The bills' language leaves out any intent to lower emissions. Instead it describes an effort to boost the Washington economy by shifting to lower-cost fuels largely produced from regional electricity. The bills also cite the need to reduce water pollution, which is not part of the federal preemption, caused by fossil fuels that drip from vehicles.

"There are many other reasons to switch from gas to electric besides emission reductions — useful life of the vehicle, fueling and maintenance costs," wrote state Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, a House sponsor of the legislation, in response to Trudeau's email.

The legislation has been championed by Matthew Metz, a Washington attorney who founded and co-executive director of Coltura, a nonprofit calling for a "gasoline-free America." Metz said that action by 2030 is needed to give the state a chance for meeting ambitious targets set by the Legislature for cutting almost all greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

He also said passage of the bill also would bolster the case for proposing a national target to phase out internal combustion engines in 2030, rather than 2035 as Newsom has proposed for California.

"This will help push the whole thing forward," Metz said.

In response to the concerns raised by the state Attorney General's office, Metz has proposed amending the language in the bills, so that any regulation to carry out the Washington law does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2025. He said that would fend of lawsuits until that date, and by then, any legal issues surrounding California's standards should be resolved.

A survey of Washingtonians in September by the Center for Climate Change Communications at George Mason University found 59% of Washingtonians either strongly or somewhat support the 2030 measure. And the legislation has been boosted by some environmental groups advocating for strong action on climate change.

"Unlike bills that require complex regulatory mechanisms, the ... bill is a simple mandate to stop selling new cars that emit climate pollution within the time that science tells us we must," said Andrew Kidde of 350 Seattle, a chapter of an international group campaigning to end the age of fossil fuels.

The bills received a hearing Feb. 1 in the House Transportation Committee, and would have to be voted out of that committee this month to have a significant chance of passage.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he has yet to meet with other Democrats on the committee to discuss the bill, and whether — given the concerns raised by the state attorney general — it should move forward.

He also noted other urgent items for the committee to address, including a transportation funding package during a virtual session when fewer bills will move through the Legislature, and there is limited time for House floor debate in the remote sessions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This will not be a bill that will take 15 minutes in committee and 15 minutes on the floor to debate. This will take a lot of time," Fey said. "We've got to make choices ... It doesn't look like this has a high likelihood of moving forward."

"We are still going to push. I feel passionately about this. We have to show leadership," Metz said.

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