The Biden White House is expected to release new automotive emissions standards that, while reversing rollbacks made under President Donald Trump, still fall short of the mandates set during the Obama administration.
And that is triggering sharp criticism from environmental groups and some lawmakers who, if anything, hoped to see tougher standards at a time when global warming is being blamed for increasingly severe weather crises.
Leading up to the inauguration in January, some proponents had hoped Biden would go so far as to set a timetable for phasing out the sale of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines entirely, perhaps by 2035. The European Union is proposing such a move, as has Canada and both California and Washington.
Splitting the difference
The White House has not yet released its draft proposal. But, according to inside information reported by the Washington Post and other media, the Biden administration will set a target for reducing automotive carbon emissions by 3.7% annually. That falls almost precisely in the middle between the 5% target that had been enacted by the Obama administration and the rolled back 1.5% target set by the Trump White House.
If that proves to be the final figure, it would fall in line with a compromise the California Air Resources Board reached in 2019 with five automakers, including BMW, Ford and Honda, which also mandated a 3.7% reduction.
Where the California plan was targeted to run through 2026, the Biden proposal apparently will hold through the 2024 model year and then tighten emissions restrictions more aggressively. The Associated Press said Biden may, at that point, seek reductions greater than the 5% target of the Obama administration. According to the Post, however, those standards may be “nonbinding.”
Critics want the White House to push to Obama-era numbers, if not setting even tougher mandates. And they want subsequent rules to be binding, with the eventual goal of eliminating automotive emissions entirely.
Pressure is mounting
“We need to eliminate the tailpipe pollution from new passenger vehicles by 2035 if we hope to curb climate change based on science and help ensure livable communities,” the Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement.
On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity laid out its position in a full-page ad demanding, among other things, there be no “loopholes” in the final emissions rules.
“The automakers are stuck in reverse. Only strong rules will ensure that we shift from gas guzzlers to clean electric vehicles with sufficient speed and in ample numbers to protect the climate,” said Dan Becker, who directs the group’s Safe Climate Transportation Campaign. “President Biden must act boldly as if the world depends on him, because it does.”
Referencing a Biden campaign slogan, Becker said the president “booted a chance to build it back better. Half steps won’t save us from climate catastrophe.”
An industry divided
The debate over emissions standards comes at a time of radical change — as well as sharp divisions — within the auto industry.
In the final days of the Obama administration, the White House ruled there was no need to roll back the tough mileage and emissions guidelines it had set. Others said it would be critical to ease the numbers, in part blaming the rapid market shift from small, generally fuel-efficient sedans and coupes to fuel-hungry SUVs, CUVs and pickups.
In 2020, in fact, the U.S. passenger vehicle fleet actually experienced a decline in average fuel economy, the first time that had occurred in five years, according to the EPA.
But since the Trump rollback automakers have, in a number of cases, reversed course. General Motors initially supported a rollback — and backed the Trump plan to strip California of its ability to set unique emissions standards — later said it supported the California compromise.
One key reason: GM’s decision to lay out a timetable for completely ending sales of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. CEO Mary Barra said the largest U.S. automaker will “strive” to do so by 2035.
Meanwhile, virtually all manufacturers have begun escalating the transision to zero-emission vehicles, primarily those running exclusively on battery-electric power.
A number have now laid out plans to go all-electric by somewhere between 2030 and 2035, including Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Bentley and others. Some analysts believe the industry, as a whole, could set an aggressive pace for reducing emissions in the U.S. because they will have to adjust their powertrain plans to meet the mandates set in other parts of the world, including Europe and China, as well as northern neighbor Canada — which also laid out plans to ban sales of new gas and diesel vehicles by 2035.