California Dreaming and Scheming:  Why California’s Electric Vehicle Mandate Should Not be Adopted Elsewhere

California Dreaming and Scheming:  Why California’s Electric Vehicle Mandate Should Not be Adopted Elsewhere
(Hannibal Hanschke/Pool via AP)
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There appears to be a race on for the title of who can do the most to combat climate change. Immediately since taking office, President Biden announced he would re-join the Paris Climate Accords among other policies. Among the most troublesome Executive Orders: direct government procurement to support “clean and zero-emission vehicles for Federal, State, local, and Tribal government fleets, including vehicles of the United States Postal Service.” Influencing this order was California’s policy on electric vehicles.  Between government mandates and subsidies, however, there is a lot of money at stake. 

That is why some are upset at the actions of California’s Governor mandating all electric cars. Last year when California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an Executive Order mandating all new cars in California be electric (or at least “zero-emission), most of the nation just laughed. California is the state that cannot even keep the lights on when nobody is working at the office. How does the governor expect to get the electricity for those cars?  Perhaps this is meant to offer an alternative to sitting at home in the dark when the lights go out. Now Californians will also be able to sit in their cars by the side of the road when the battery runs dry and there is no place to recharge.

The Renewable Fuels Association, however, had a different take when this policy was announced. Yes, they did note the idea of “zero emission vehicle” has about the same claim on reality as unicorns. But their real concern had nothing to do with whether there would be any electricity available to power cars in the future. Instead, they are upset that the mandate for electric cars will take away their government provided pay day.

The RFA represents the ethanol industry – the folks who turn food products (mainly corn) into a substandard gasoline additive. The most outrageous claim in the RFA’s objection to the California plan for all electric cars is that the state should “let the market determine” the best way to lower “carbon pollution.” Without government mandates, however, there would be no market for their product. Thus, Governor Newsom’s Executive Order threatens their industry.

Ethanol is supposed to be good for the environment. However, studies show that it actually reduces the efficiency of gasoline – requiring motorists to burn more gas to go the same number of miles. Burning more gasoline to go the same distance does not sound like the path to cleaner air. Why then do we have ethanol in our gasoline? Only because it is mandated by the federal and state governments. We are required to buy gasoline blended with ethanol. On top of that mandate, the biofuel industries receives a host of other government subsidies including tax breaks, grants, loans, and loan guarantees. Nothing about the ethanol industry is driven by “market competition” or innovation.

A true market-driven approach to cleaner air would not require the use of any particular product propped up by a host of subsidies. A market would challenge private industry to come up with a solution. California or the EPA could establish a standard for tailpipe emissions, and then car manufacturers and energy companies could compete in the market for the most efficient way to meet that requirement. A market approach would not use government mandates or subsidies.

In a way, that is what California is doing with the new mandate that the RFA is attacking. The order by the Governor requires zero-emission vehicles by 2035. But the government cannot mandate the impossible and expect that it will actually happen.  All-electric vehicles, for instance, have to get their electricity from somewhere. Where do you think that electricity is coming from when you plug your car into an outlet to recharge the battery? Is the power plant sourcing coal or oil or natural gas On top of that, the state has yet to figure out what to do with all of the toxic components of electric car batteries after those batteries wear out. And this does not count the carbon emissions involved in the manufacturing of the electric car. Before it is sold, economists project the electric vehicle will account for “30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission,” a little more than twice that produced by the manufacture of a conventional gasoline-powered car.

Incidentally, other states like Minnesota are looking to adopt the California model. Last fall, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced a policy to adopt California’s standards for zero-emission vehicles (ZEV). The ZEV standard makes auto manufacturers provide more electric, plug-in hybrid or hydrogen-powered cars for sale. The Minnesota Pollution Control Board said Minnesota must follow California’s standards “verbatim” even though doing so would result in fewer choices for consumers at car dealerships.

The Renewable Fuels Association has a legitimate complaint about the magical thinking that lies at the core of California’s newest environmental mandate. But the RFA cannot claim that its products provide “market-based” solutions.


Professor Anthony Caso is a Senior Litigation Fellow at the Claremont Institute and the Director of the Constitutional Jurisprudence Clinic at Chapman University, Fowler School of Law.

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