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Debate over ending gas-powered car sales revs up

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Tesla Supercharger REUTERS

Tesla Supercharger stations are becoming more common around Delaware and they could grow even more in the next decade if new vehicle emission regulations are adopted to move the state from gas-powered vehicle sales to electric vehicles, or EVs. | PHOTO COURTESY OF REUTERS/MIKE BLAKE

In 2035, a dozen years from now, will Delaware drivers purchasing a new car forget and pull up to a gas pump? After all, if everything goes as now planned, the only new cars available then will be fueled by batteries. 

In March 2022, Gov. John Carney announced that Delaware planned to join 16 other states in adopting the California Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulations, setting off a year-long, statewide debate about whether all new cars registered in Delaware in 2035 will be only electric, or zero-emission vehicles, as ZEV regulations will require, or whether there will still remain some new gasoline-powered automobiles available on dealer lots.

While that bottom-line objective of the governor’s directive to amend existing Delaware regulations is straightforward – no new gasoline cars to be sold or registered in Delaware after the 2034 model year – what it means now, and what it will mean 12 years from now, has for the past year provoked disagreement and charges of misrepresentation of facts on both sides.

Furthermore, Republicans floated legislation in April that would strip the agency in charge of making that final decision, the Delaware Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), of its authority to do so.

Proponents of ZEV say the measure is environmentally necessary – another critical step in reducing air pollutants and combating climate change as well as a measure to keep pace with the rest of the country in providing Delawareans with the greatest array of options now for buying electric vehicles (EVs). Opponents say the measure is unnecessary, won’t work as

planned, is prohibitively costly and, for good measure, should have been voted on in the legislature and not mandated by the governor.

Like a courtroom drama in which anyone can file an amicus curiae brief or a political campaign filled with rallies and town halls meetings, the issue will come to a head first on April 26, when DNREC will hold its formal hearing on the matter, and again on May 26, when all final comments must be submitted to the agency.

When DNREC will announce its decision about how the state will move forward is anyone’s guess.

“We take all comments seriously, and the more comments we receive, the longer it will take to make final decisions,” said Angela Marconi, DNREC’s division director of air quality, who is overseeing the process.

Not surprisingly, party-line politics are involved. Democrats are lined up behind the governor, while Republics are in opposition to either stop ZEV or pass legislation to strip DNREC of its authority in the matter.

How it all started

The nationwide debate over how, and how quickly, EVs will replace some, most or all of gasoline-powered vehicles is a long and contentious one, and one not completely relegated to a conservative-versus-liberal delineation. Even some politicians who think global warming and climate change aren’t serious issues nevertheless welcome the economic advantages of having new EV and battery-producing factories located in their states or regions.

electric vehicles Delaware EV

The rising price of gasoline over the past year has convinced some consumers to adopt an electric vehicle earlier. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

And it was conservative entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, not traditional auto manufacturers, who pushed to develop EVs aided by state and federal incentives to manufacturers and consumers offered by environmentally conscious lawmakers. As a result of this combination of marketplace capitalism paired with green activism, there isn’t an automotive manufacturer, traditional or new, that isn’t heavily invested in an EV future and committed to speedy transformation.

Because the state of California began mandating vehicle emission regulations even before passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA), the federal law allowed the state to continue using its stricter regulations. The CAA also allowed other states to adopt the more-restrictive California standards, without changes, or follow the laxer federal standards. A state could not set its own regulations, however, which left politicians to choose which standard to follow.

In 2012, California enacted the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) and Low-Emission Vehicle (LEV) programs as part of its Advanced Clean Cars (ACC) regulations for model years 2015 to 2025 for light-duty and medium-duty vehicles. These regulations have been instrumental in creating and growing the market for electric vehicles while reducing road greenhouse gases and pollutant emission such as ozone.

Delaware originally accepted California’s lesser LEV or ACC I guidelines and is now planning to adopt the more-rigorous ZEV or ACC II guidelines which will go into effect with the 2026 model year. In spite of the political baggage of “following California,” 16 other states have adopted both California ACC I ZEV and ACC II ZEV regulations, and two states, Delaware and Pennsylvania, have adopted LEV regulations.

Most of Delaware’s neighbors – New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and New York – have already adopted the ZEV guidelines, as have all the New England states except New Hampshire, the West Coast states and Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Minnesota.

Most of the basic facts about what will happen in 2035, if the measure is adopted without changes, are plain. Delaware residents will not be able to buy a new gas-powered vehicle anywhere and have it registered in Delaware, although no one will be required to buy a new EV.

Although motorists can buy a used gas-powered vehicle, register it and drive it as many years as they want, new vehicles will be restricted to EVs, signaling a sea change in the state’s auto industry.

Issues

Over the past year there has been a series of public meetings held by DNREC, by organizations supporting ACC II adoption and by organizations opposing. Those in favor have been led by the Sierra Club and have been joined by several health care and environmental organizations. Opposition meetings have been led by the state Republican Party, which held five public meetings (GOP state party Chairman Jane Brady calls them “rallies”) across the state earlier this year with input from the non-partisan conservative think tank, the Caesar Rodney Institute (CRI). DNREC also participated in two of them.

Issues debated, and “facts” being disputed by each side, include:

California meets Delaware

While many of the largest states have adopted ZEV regulations, the fact they originated in California and have “California” in their titles raises the ire of many people, especially Republicans.

“People seem to have a visceral reaction to the word ‘California,’ either positive or negative,” DNREC’s Angela Marconi said.

The GOP’s Brady agreed with that, saying, “We cannot allow another state to dictate what we do in our state. We don’t want to be California. Politically, socially and in every way, they are a mess.”

electric vehicles Delaware EV

As technology has improved the change timing has decreased and battery durations have been extended, but charging is still more time-consuming then filling a gas tank. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

EV availability

Compliance with ZEV guidelines to reach mandated numbers of available EVs in Delaware and other states falls directly on manufacturers, not the dealers or consumers. Under ZEV, beginning with the 2026 model year, 35% is the target number that car manufacturers need to deliver in Delaware to meet ZEV requirements. DNREC argues that without adopting ZEV, Delawareans will have fewer EV choices.

“Delawareans deserve access to the full range of new [EV] cars available,” DNREC’s Chief Communications Officer Nikki Lavoie said. “By acting now, our dealerships can begin taking delivery of ZEVs with the 2027 model year in 2026 and be on fair footing with neighboring states’ dealerships.”

While local dealers have not been actively involved in the debate, Chip Sheridan of Sheridan Ford and a spokesman for the Delaware Automotive and Truck Dealers Association, said he hasn’t met a dealer in favor of ZEV.

“We believe as a group that letting supply and demand dictate is a healthier situation,” he said.

EV Capabilities

David Stevenson, who heads environmental and energy policy for CRI, which provides much of the research and advocacy for the Republican opposition, argued that current EV cars and trucks do not have the single-charge driving range nor the desired hauling heft drivers want and need.

Proponents dispute this argument and point out that both capabilities are constantly being improved by competitive manufacturers, with both having been significantly improved in the last decade.

EV Costs

Although EV prices rose a year or two ago, they have recently declined significantly.

At the end of 2022, the average price of an electric vehicle was $61,488, compared with $49,507 for all passenger cars and trucks, according to Kelley Blue Book.

Increased competition and mass manufacturing of batteries and vehicles may help to lower costs. Meanwhile, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included a $7,500 tax credit on EV purchases of $55,000 or less, or $80,000 and less for trucks and SUVs, that is expected to help drive down consumer costs – an electric Chevy Equinox due out this year may actually end up cheaper than the gas version with the credit.

Charging stations

Everyone agrees there are not enough charging stations available at present, and that recharging is expensive. The arguments are over how many can be built over the next dozen years and what they will cost.

electric vehicles Delaware EV

Charging stations like these at the Newark Train Station will have to grow in number to support the ZEV plan. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“It’s difficult to get more charging stations now because of the low number of EVs in the state,” Marconi argued, and, indeed, the logic behind adopting California ZEV standards emphasize as gas-powered vehicles are phased out, entrepreneurs will install more chargers. Marconi points out that the state is committed to using about $18 million in funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for charging stations.

“I think they have under-estimated the cost of charging stations,” Stevenson countered, “and they will have to make major changes in the electric grid to support increased charging needs,” referencing a report by PJM, the regional transmission organization which coordinates movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states, including Delaware.

While the report does deal with expected demand versus expected supply, PJM spokesman Jeff Shields cautions that “the primary driver of increased electricity demand from our forecasts is the development in data centers in Northern Virginia and elsewhere in the PJM footprint, not electrification of vehicles.”

There is also concern by all parties about how charging will be done in high-density urban areas, especially in high-rise apartment complexes and neighborhoods using on-street parking.

“We’re looking at how to understand how other states are addressing this issue,” Marconi said, adding, “We need to know how to address it.”

Transition period

No argument here about the facts: If ZEV is adopted, the target numbers for new EV vehicles brought into the state by manufacturers goes up annually, from 35% in model year 2026 to 51% in 2028, 76% in 2031, 94% in 2034 and 100% for model year 2034.

Used autos

If ZEV goes into effect in 2035, drivers can buy, register and operate used gas-powered vehicles as long as the vehicles meet emissions requirements for their model year.

Air quality and climate change

There will never be agreement on these issues. Both ozone and greenhouse gases are targets of ZEV or ACC II, and Stevenson charges that DNREC is only allowed to administer ZEV because ozone is their purview, not greenhouses gases. And, he contends, ozone would not be an issue if DNREC would petition the EPA to take Delaware off the ozone list.

“DNREC is using the mandate as an excuse for not doing so,” he said.

Marconi counters that it’s not solely a Delaware issue but one also involving air quality in next-door Pennsylvania.

“Delaware can’t accept an exceptional status for Pennsylvania,” she said, “and we can’t ask the EPA to remove Pennsylvania from the list.”

Mandate vs. legislation

“The fact that that it was a mandate from the governor and did not come from the legislature is a major issue,” Stevenson said.

Brady goes further, saying, “The mandate is impractical. You need to follow the science, and here there isn’t any science for the Democrats to follow. You can’t dictate commerce. You can regulate it.”

Then why not take it to the legislature?

“The legislature is controlled by Democrats,” Stevenson said.

Nevertheless, on April 6 Republicans began circulating two new bills for sponsorship that, if enacted, would strip DNREC of its ability to move forward with ZEV.

End game

At present, the Gov. Carney, DNREC, the Democratic-controlled legislature and the large number of environmental, public health and consumer advocacy groups which support adoption of the California ZEV rules appear to be in command of what happens next.

The Republicans and many members of the business community who want to stop ZEV have taken two paths forward. One is to gain public support to apply pressure on the governor and DNREC by couching the issue as one in which Delaware drivers are being deprived – or will be deprived in the future – of being able to buy gas-powered new vehicles. Second is urging legislative approach, even if only to draw attention to the matter.

Final written comments must be submitted by May 26 via email to DNRECHearingComments@delaware.gov.

Then, unless the process hits a roadblock, the issue of to ZEV or not to ZEV will be decided later this year. In the meantime, the motor of debate will keep running.

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