EPA Chief Challenges Legality of California’s Proposed Ban on Gas-Powered Cars

Wheeler urges Newsom to step away from 'mostly aspirational' vehicle ban
By Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
Alan McDonnell
September 29, 2020Updated: September 30, 2020

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler wrote a letter Sept. 28 to California Gov. Gavin Newsom challenging the state’s plans to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035.

Wheeler said the plan “raises serious questions regarding its legality and practicality.”

Newsom, a Democrat, issued an executive order on Sept. 23, directing state regulators to aggressively move the state away from fossil fuels by mandating that all new passenger cars and trucks sold in California by 2035 should be “zero-emission” vehicles. Newsom said the rule would ensure “more than a 35 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and an 80 percent improvement in oxides of nitrogen emissions from cars state-wide.”

Wheeler, in his letter, asked Newsom how California could add millions of electric vehicles and the associated charging infrastructure with the state’s recent record of rolling blackouts—shortages Wheeler said were “unprecedented in size and scope.”

Wheeler said the state’s energy shortage and status as a net importer of electricity “begs the question of how you expect to run an electric car fleet that will come with significant increases in electricity demand, when you can’t even keep the lights on today.”

“The truth is that if the state were driving 100 percent electric vehicles today, the state would be dealing with even worse power shortages than the ones that have already caused a series of otherwise preventable environmental and public health consequences,” Wheeler wrote.

California experienced its first rolling blackouts in almost 20 years in August when a heatwave greatly increased the demand for electricity for air conditioning and cooling. As the heatwave continued, the state introduced campaigns encouraging Californians to pre-cool their homes and turn off appliances during the afternoon and evening, when demand is highest.

High tension towers are seen
High tension towers in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2020. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

Legality of Newsom’s Executive Order

“In the next 15 years, we will eliminate in the state of California the sales of internal combustion engines. We will move forward to green and decarbonize our vehicle fleet here in the state of California,” Newsom said at a press conference announcing the executive order.

“We’re not taking anything away,” he said. “We’re providing an abundance of new choices and new technology, being agnostic about how we get to zero emissions, but being committed to getting to zero emissions by 2035.”

In his letter, however, Wheeler pointed out that in 2019, the EPA withdrew California’s waiver of preemption for the Clean Air Act related to greenhouse gas emissions for light-duty vehicles.

The EPA administrator stated that he considers Newsom’s executive order to be “mostly aspirational,” and that he believes it would accomplish “very little” on its own. However, he also said that attempts by California’s Air Resources Board in the future to implement parts of it may mean that the state will have to request a waiver from the EPA.

By contrast, Wheeler described the EPA’s approach to fulfilling its mission of environmental protection as “pragmatic and thoughtful,” and said that reductions in emissions from power plants and vehicles achieved by the Trump administration had largely avoided what he termed “unnecessary consequences.”

“By setting realistic goals and maintaining a comprehensive awareness of impacts to the economy, we have achieved tangible environmental progress while improving the lives and livelihoods of our citizenry,” Wheeler wrote.

“I urge you to step away from commitments to singular technologies,” said Wheeler. “While it is tempting for federal or state agencies to regulate with a particular technology in mind, it is far more productive to provide innovators the freedom to develop the technologies of tomorrow.”

Newsom didn’t immediately respond to the letter. However, the governor’s spokesperson, Jesse Melgar, told The Associated Press: “While the Trump administration tries to drive this country off a climate cliff, California is once again assuming the mantle of leadership in the fight against climate change.

“We aren’t going to back down from protecting our kids’ health and the air they breathe.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.