Biden Administration Backs Off Its Proposed Tailpipe Emissions Rules

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Joe Biden has been a staunch supporter of the EV revolution ever since he took office. His administration has proposed tougher tailpipe emissions standards that will make it almost impossible for automakers to meet unless a high percentage of the cars they make are battery-electric vehicles.

As Carolyn Fortuna reported last year, the EPA wants to significantly decrease the amount of tailpipe emissions from new cars and light trucks starting with model year 2027.

Last April, the EPA said:

The first set of proposed standards announced today, the “Multi-Pollutant Emissions Standards for Model Years 2027 and Later Light-Duty and Medium Duty Vehicles,” builds on EPA’s existing emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks for MYs 2023 through 2026. The proposal retains the proven regulatory design of previous EPA standards for light-duty vehicles, but leverages advances in clean car technology to further reduce both climate pollution and smog- and soot-forming emissions.

The proposed standards are projected to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. Depending on the compliance pathways manufacturers select to meet the standards, EPA projects that EVs could account for 67% of new light-duty vehicle sales and 46% of new medium-duty vehicle sales in MY 2032. The proposed MY 2032 light-duty standards are projected to result in a 56% reduction in projected fleet average greenhouse gas emissions target levels compared to the existing MY 2026 standards. The proposed MY 2032 medium-duty vehicle standards would result in a 44% reduction compared to MY 2026 standards.

Rethinking Auto Emissions Standards

The proposed tailpipe emissions standards make perfect sense if you are someone concerned about the increase in climate disruptions caused by a warming planet. After all, the crud pouring out of the tailpipes of cars and trucks is one of the principle reasons why average global temperatures are rising and why there are so many more severe storms and wildfires happening around the world.

But if you are in the car business and are focused on selling cars and trucks at a profit, you may see things in a different light. Automakers have sharply criticized the proposed new rules, claiming that demand for electric cars and trucks is softening, leaving them to sell products many customers don’t want. In actuality, a lot of that is propaganda promoted by fossil fuel interests which want to continue selling gasoline and motor oil as long as possible. And some of it is propaganda from automakers themselves.

Average tailpipe emissions in America are actually higher today than they were ten years ago. Why? Because automakers have eliminated sedans from their model lineups and replaced them with larger, heavier, thirstier SUVs and light trucks — vehicles that, not coincidentally, are more profitable as well. Is that a cynical decision by US car companies to give the EPA a collective poke in the eye?

What most consumers don’t know is that no matter how strict tailpipe emissions standards are, they are less strict for larger, heavier vehicles because of something called the “footprint rule,” a workaround the Obama administration agreed to in order to quell a potential revolt by the manufacturers when it proposed tougher emissions standards.

While the industry was screaming about stricter standards, it was already planning to stop making the cars most affected by them. Because of the footprint rule, the companies could wail about how hard it is to meet the EPA standards while forgetting to mention they don’t actually build any of those cars. Did anyone notice that GM, Ford, and Stellantis all decided to stop building traditional family sedans at the same time? Must have been a coincidence.

Courting Labor Unions

There’s another aspect to this topic as well. Labor unions like the United Auto Workers have become more powerful after a successful strike against the car manufacturers last fall. Those unions see the transition to electric cars as a threat to their membership because they believe fewer workers will be needed to build electric automobiles and trucks. They have a reason to be concerned. Internal combustion engines and transmissions have as many as ten thousand bits and pieces whizzing and whirring around inside.

Electric cars typically have fewer than 10 moving parts. Fewer parts means fewer workers. It’s a pretty straightforward analysis. Shortly after the EPA proposed its aggressive new rules package last spring, Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, wrote that the union was withholding its endorsement of Biden’s re-election bid over “concerns with the electric vehicle transition.”

In public comments it filed regarding the proposed rule, the UAW pressed the Biden administration to relax the compliance timeline so that it “increases stringency more gradually, and occurs over a greater period of time.” Union leaders repeated that request in discussions with senior White House officials over the past six months. Biden administration officials said the union’s comments had “resonated” with them.

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More Tailpipe Emissions Now, Fewer Later

Now the New York Times is reporting the Biden administration is making a concession to automakers and labor unions by relaxing some elements of its proposed limits on tailpipe emissions. Instead of requiring automakers to rapidly ramp up sales of electric vehicles over the next few years, it would give car manufacturers more time, with a sharp increase in sales not required until after 2030, according to three people with knowledge of the situation who spoke with the Times. The administration plans to publish the final rule by early spring.

Biden is facing intense crosswinds as he runs for re-election while trying to address the causes of an overheating planet. Reducing tailpipe emissions is one part of that strategy. But Biden needs cooperation from the auto industry and political support from the unionized auto workers who backed him in 2020. Consumer demand has not been what automakers hoped, with potential buyers put off by sticker prices and the relative scarcity of charging stations.

Those are all fair concerns, however our senior editor, Zachary Shahan reported recently that sales of electric cars are still trending up — almost 400% since 2019 — while sales of conventional cars and light trucks have declined 14% during the same period.

The EPA designed the proposed tailpipe emissions regulations so that 67% of sales of new cars and light-duty trucks would be all electric by 2032, up from 7.6% in 2023. That remains the goal, but as they finalize the regulations, Biden administration officials are willing to slow the pace at which auto manufacturers need to comply so that electric vehicle sales would increase more gradually through 2030 but would rise sharply thereafter.

The change in pacing is in response to automakers who say that more time is needed to build a national network of charging stations and to bring down the cost of electric vehicles, and to labor unions that want more time to try to unionize new electric car plants that are opening around the country, particularly in the South. But delaying the most stringent requirements of the rule could come at a cost to the climate. After the hottest year in recorded history, slowing the pace of climate related action is more difficult to justify.

Postponing the sharp increase in electric vehicle sales until after 2030 would still eliminate roughly the same amount of tailpipe emissions as the original proposal by 2055, according to EPA models. But it would mean the nation would continue to pump auto emissions into the atmosphere in the short run. Scientists say every year counts in the government’s efforts to prevent the planet from tipping into more deadly and costly climate disasters. “You’ll have faster warming if U.S. transportation emissions don’t decline before 2030,” said James Glynn, a senior researcher at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Ali Zaidi, Mr. Biden’s senior climate adviser, declined to discuss the details of the final regulation, but said in an interview that Biden’s climate policies, combined with record federal investment in renewable energy, would still help to reach the president’s goal of cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. “I feel very good about how our policies, including the regulatory actions, are fitting together to boost our ability to hit our 2030 targets and setting us up for the longer term trajectory,” he said.

Two Million EV Chargers Needed

While construction of EV chargers is up sharply thanks to Biden’s EV policies, analysts project that the nation will need more than two million chargers by 2030 to support the growth in electric vehicles envisioned by the proposed rules. When the Tesla Supercharger network opens to most EVs this year and next, that will be a significant boost to America’s fast charging infrastructure, but not sufficient to meet the needs of all electric car drivers. Those Superchargers are primarily located near major highways. Rural areas far removed from those highways are what need more chargers installed.

Still, US automakers have invested $146 billion over the past three years in researching and developing electric vehicles, according to the Center for Automotive Research. They worry about a slowdown in the sale of electric cars and trucks and the cost of squeezing more miles per gallon out of the conventional cars and trucks they manufacture. GM has announced recently it intends to produce more plug-in hybrids, which may serve as a bridge until sales of battery electric cars ramps up later this decade.

“It may be some time before the larger middle class, middle of the country market is ready to embrace buying plug-in cars,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, the senior vice president of research at the Center for Automotive Research. It could be easier to sell many more electric vehicles after 2030, he added. “There is new technology coming in, prices changing, consumer behavior changing. If you’re running one of these businesses and you get some extra time, you would use every second. You can do things that allow you to better source components, test out new technologies, battery technology will get cheaper and allow people to drive longer distances, there is more investment in charging infrastructure, and in the minds of consumers you could start to see more acceptance of this.”

Some analysts told the New York Times that relaxing the rules to give auto companies and workers what they want could be worth it if it helps Biden win the election, since the convicted fraudster and sexual predator running against him has made it clear that if he wins, he plans to roll back the rules entirely.

David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California San Diego, said, “You have more emissions for a few years but you raise the odds that the rule will stick.” That’s assuming the strategy works and the Blue Team actually wins the next election. America may yet decide it wants to be ruled by an anal expulsive tyrant who will take the country back to feudal times. In that case, we will have more to worry about than a few billion more tons of carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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