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EPA Emissions Changes and the Gradual Shift to EVs

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at new EPA rules and how it will affect transportation electrification.
Abigail Bassett
Apr 9, 2024 5 min read
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It’s been a busy few weeks for the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA awarded $20 billion for clean-energy programs around the country, and released final EPA Emissions rules, pushing automakers in the US, one of the world's largest automobile markets, to green up their fleet emissions by 2032. We’ll cover the new low-interest loans for climate change projects in an upcoming newsletter. While the new rules are some of the most sweeping that have been released since the 2000s, they are also not nearly as aggressive as originally proposed, thanks in large part to heavy lobbying by everyone from the United Auto Workers, who went on strike at major American auto plants late last year, to the automakers themselves.

The rules give automakers a slower ramp to electrification and a variety of ways to get there by building and selling everything from battery-electric vehicles (BEV) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) to hybrid vehicles. The new EPA tailpipe emissions rules will reportedly reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 50% by 2032.

I recently wrote a story for Heatmap News about what the new rules mean for PHEVs and hybrids and had the opportunity to speak with Chris Harto, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports, as well as Thomas Boylan, the regulatory director at the Zero Emissions Transportation Association (ZETA) which represents a number of charging networks, battery makers and a small group of car makers, during my reporting. In spite of the scaled-back rules, both underlined the fact that the new rules are tech-neutral, and that, in spite of the salacious headlines, Republican rhetoric about an “EV mandate”, and Big Oil’s promise to fight the rules in court and Congress, they’re good for the planet and for people.

So What Are the New EPA Emissions Rules

Emissions rules are complicated, and the 1200-page document is a dense piece of reading, but at its heart sits a path toward electrification for automakers. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of ensuring that Americans have clean air, water, and land, and that includes regulating emissions from the nation's more than 286 million vehicles on the road today. According to the Washington Post, “The EPA said that under its final rule, the industry could meet the limits if 56% of new vehicle sales are electric by 2032, along with at least 13% plug-in hybrids or other partially electric cars, as well as more efficient gasoline-powered cars that get more miles to the gallon.”

Passenger vehicles like sedans, SUVs, and trucks (also known as light-duty vehicles) will be required to hit an industry-wide target of 85 grams of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per mile by 2032. Large trucks and vans, (aka medium duty vehicles) will have to reduce their GHG emissions by 44 percent, to 274 grams per mile in 2032, according to The Verge.

The important thing to know about these numbers is that they are applied across an automaker's entire “fleet” of vehicles–meaning that a car company like Mercedes could continue to build their AMG G-Wagen that gets an EPA rated, 14 miles per gallon combined, at the same time they build their all-electric S-Class (Called the EQS) which gets an estimated 96 MPGe combined. Since the EQS doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, it would count toward the company’s overall goal of hitting those overall fleet numbers outlined by the EPA.

As Chris Harto from Consumer Reports said during our interview, “Every hybrid and EV they can sell, helps balance out every supercar.”

What do the New Rules Mean for Electrification and the Climate?

The Biden Administration has said that the new rules will avoid more than seven billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, plus cut health care costs for those who live in large, car-reliant cities. According to a contributor piece over at Forbes by Margo T. Oge, the former Director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the EPA, “The rule stands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.2 billion metric tons through 2055 by directly targeting the transportation sector, which accounts for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. It will reduce greenhouse gas by 56% and significantly reduce nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions. That means the rule will help mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and Americans will suffer far less asthma cases, premature deaths, and respiratory illnesses.”

The EPA also says it expects the new rules will deliver as much as $46 billion annually in fuel savings to consumers as well as savings on maintenance and repairs valued at about $16 billion annually because EVs have fewer moving parts that need maintenance.

Whether the rules will stick or not, is one question that remains unanswered–especially as the Oil and Gas lobby riles up Republicans in Congress, and threatens legal measures to block the rule. The U.S. is also facing a deeply divided electorate and a possible second Trump term. Besides threatening a “bloodbath,” if he loses in November, the former president, who is facing four significant criminal indictments for everything from his role in the January 6 attacks to the hoarding of classified documents, has also threatened to dismantle the EPA completely if he wins the presidency in November.

There’s also the question of whether or not the EPA will continue to have the right to enforce environmental rules, as a pair of cases make their way through the U.S. Supreme Court. Two cases: Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo and Relentless, Inc. v. Department of Commerce. could reverse or significantly curb what’s known as the Chevron doctrine, which according to ArsTechnica, holds that “when the meaning of a law is disputed, the federal agency’s interpretation should be given deference as long as it is reasonable.” Supreme Court observers seem to think that its likely the court will upend the doctrine. If they do, in fact upend the ruling, it's not the first time that the courts have restricted the EPA, either. The conservative stacked court restricted the EPA's ability to mandate carbon emissions reductions in 2022.

In spite of all this, Harto is largely positive about the new emissions rules.

“These rules are genuinely good for Americans. There's nothing bad about them. These rules help Americans in so many ways; in their pocketbook, in the air they breathe, in the climate they live in. There's really no downside, but there is always going to be political polarization around this stuff,” he said.

We’ll keep tabs on how the regulations play out both for the market and for the planet.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett