How significant is the Biden administration’s emissions announcement?
Representatives of the Big Three US automakers and the United Auto Workers union recently joined President Biden at the White House to publicly announce plans to improve the fuel economy of legacy vehicles, and to gradually expand EV sales. The mainstream press saw the announcement as a major milestone, a new era, a paradigm shift. EV industry experts, eco-activists and Tesla fans were less impressed, to say the least.
What did the administration and the automakers actually announce? Basically, a return to the Obama-era fuel economy standards, and a reiteration of EV sales goals that the companies already announced months ago. It was a serving of symbolism, not substance. However, the symbolic value is substantial, and hopefully this artistically-plated appetizer will be followed by several more filling courses (such as a revamping of the federal tax credit, more funding for charging infrastructure, and the electrification of the government fleet).
Immediately upon taking office, Biden’s EPA began the process of reinstating the federal fuel economy standards that its predecessor, with the support of most of the legacy automakers, eviscerated. In the March/April 2021 issue of Charged, a former EPA exec and a California environmental lawyer explained how that lengthy and complex process was likely to unfold. Both predicted that the administration would take a moderate path, reinstating the Obama-era regulations for now, while setting the stage for a stricter set of future regulations that will force a phase-out of fossil-fuel vehicles.
In the event, that’s what the administration has done. Automakers, which have already designed the cars they’ll be selling two years down the road, can easily meet the reinstated rules, and federal agencies will have time to craft a new, technically complex and legally ambitious standard, which will hopefully apply to vehicles produced beyond 2026.
“Depending on how they write it, that second rule will either put us on a pathway toward widespread use of EVs by later this decade—or it won’t,” Jeff Alson, a former EPA Senior Engineer and policy adviser, told the New York Times. “It will be a challenge...Forcing that kind of change will not be easy for federal agencies and politicians to do unless they have the support of the public and the automakers.”
Demonstrating that support was the real point of this exercise, and getting the automakers and the union to agree to cooperate, however timidly, on reducing emissions and eventual electrification, was an accomplishment.
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However, it seemed odd that the nation’s largest automaker by market cap, and the only one currently selling EVs in volume, wasn’t on the stage. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNBC he was “not sure” why Tesla wasn’t invited to the event. Some observers believe that the pro-union White House deliberately snubbed Tesla, which has resisted efforts by its employees to organize, and has long had an adversarial relationship with the UAW.
Another false note was the automakers’ underwhelming announcement that they would consider discussing the possibility of proposing a non-binding aspirational aim of making as much as 40, or maybe even 50 percent, of their sales electrified vehicles (including partially fossil-fueled vehicles such as plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles) by 2030 (if certain conditions, including major government subsidies, are met, and assuming that the CEOs who agreed to consider this concept are still in office at that time).
As followers of the EV scene know, all three companies have already announced similar goals over the last few months. In January, GM said that 40 percent of the company’s US models will be battery-electric vehicles by the end of 2025, and that it hopes to make all new light-duty vehicles electric by 2035. In May, Ford said it aims to increase pure EV sales to 40 percent of its global volume by 2030. Chrysler parent Stellantis says that by 2030, battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles will account for over 40 percent of sales in North America and 70 percent in Europe. Stellantis’s more European-oriented brands, including Fiat and Alpha Romeo, have announced far more ambitious goals.
EV industry media rightly ridiculed the automakers’ empty announcement. Sandy Munro predicted that the majority of new vehicles in the US will be electric by 2028, otherwise “there won’t be an OEM in North America.” He pointed out that the US has fallen far behind Europe and China in the electric transition, but also thanked the President for “stepping up to the plate and trying to save the automotive companies here in the United States.”
Electrek’s Fred Lambert posed a pointed question: If 50% of the Big Three’s cars are electric in 2030, who do they think is going to buy the other 50%?