California senators urge Biden to set a date to end gas-powered vehicle sales

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — California's senators are calling upon President Joe Biden to set a date to end sales of internal combustion engine vehicles and to "set fuel economy standards at the maximum level feasible."

"We believe the national baseline should, at an absolute minimum, be built around the technical lead set by companies that voluntarily advanced their agreements with California," Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla wrote in a letter sent to Biden Friday and first reported by Reuters on Monday. "We also urge you to follow California’s lead and set a date by which all new cars and passenger trucks sold be zero-emission vehicles."

Surface street traffic crosses above the US 101 freeway in Los Angeles, California.

Biden directed his administration to review emissions and fuel economy standards, which were rolled back under former President Donald Trump. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Feinstein and Padilla's letter.

Trump reduced the requirement for annual increases in fleetwide average miles-per-gallon from 5% under the Obama administration to a less-stringent 1.5% for model years 2021-26. Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., BMW AG, Volkswagen AG and Volvo Cars Ltd. struck a deal with California to meet 3.7% increases in fuel efficiency. 

Some automakers are pushing for the administration to set a standard higher than the Trump administration's but lower than California's with added credits for selling electric vehicles. Environmental groups have argued nothing lower than Obama-era standards would adequately meet urgent climate needs.

Biden has directed agencies to review both fuel economy (overseen by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and emissions standards (overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency) by July. Other reports have indicated the White House is pushing for a deal to be ready by Earth Day on April 22. 

Several major automakers are planning to pivot to electric vehicles more than ever before, marking a sea change in an industry where still less than 2% of total vehicle sales are electric.

Earlier this year, General Motors Co. announced it would seek to stop making gas- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2035 and be totally carbon neutral by 2040. Ford said almost all of its European offerings would be all electric or plug-in hybrid by mid-2026, all electric by 2030, and said it would spend $22 billion on EVs through 2025. Stellantis NV, maker of Jeep SUVs and Ram pickups, plans to offer electrified versions of each of the vehicles in its portfolio by 2025.

"The automobile industry has shown it has the ingenuity and resources to reimagine our transportation systems in consumer-friendly ways," Feinstein and Padilla wrote.

"We urge your administration to take advantage of this effort and make real progress in coordination with states, like California, that share your goals to aggressively fight climate change by eliminating harmful pollution from the transportation sector."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last fall that would phase out the sale of new gas-powered cars and trucks by 2035.

The Trump administration frequently clashed with California, which has long had the power to set its own environmental standards due to unique geography that exacerbates pollution. In 2019, the administration revoked California's authority to set stricter auto emissions standards, which resulted in a lawsuit that divided the auto industry. 

Biden has directed his administration to stop pursuing that lawsuit. Feinstein and Padilla urged him to maintain the state's power to set its own rules.

Twitter: @rbeggin