Many states, including NC’s neighbor to the north, have linked their laws to California’s clean car standards
California’s decision to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars beginning in 2035 will also halt the sale of such vehicles in Virginia due to a 2021 law linking the commonwealth to the western state’s vehicle emissions standards, state attorneys have concluded.
In a Thursday email obtained by the Virginia Mercury, Assistant Attorney General Michael Jagels concluded that Virginia is “bound” by the California decision because the state chose to be “statutorily and regulatorily aligned with California.”
Decoupling from California’s path would require “an amendment or repeal of the mandating legislation,” Jagels wrote.
A senior Republican confirmed separately that attorneys with the state’s legislative branch had reached the same conclusion.
The ban, which if approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wouldn’t take effect for 13 years, would not impact used car sales or prohibit anyone from driving older-model vehicles with internal combustion engines.
While Republicans are likely to seize on the issue as a potent talking point in the upcoming elections, the linkage of Virginia’s vehicle emissions policy with California’s is little surprise to either the state’s environmental groups or its auto dealers.
In 2021, Virginia Democrats pushed through legislation to adopt vehicle emissions standards and electric car sales targets set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) as part of the party’s broad climate change agenda. The law, which has been hotly opposed by state Republicans who tried but failed to repeal it in 2022, was supported by the influential Virginia Automobile Dealers Association.
Because of federal law establishing a two-year transition period, the California standards won’t be effective in Virginia until early 2024, but once in force will bring Virginia in line with 14 other states and Washington, D.C. that have decided to follow the Golden State’s path.
“The General Assembly did decide for Virginia to become a clean cars state and take advantage of the authority under the Clean Air Act to adopt more stringent tailpipe pollution regulations. And those measures do change over time,” said Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who lobbied for Virginia to join with California.
“We always knew there would be some new standards” over time, he said. “And given transportation is the number one source of carbon pollution, I think it was a safe bet that those standards would continue to try to cut pollution.”
Under the federal Clean Air Act, states are forbidden from crafting their own vehicle emissions standards. The law allows states to choose to adopt either federal standards or stricter rules set by California.
Combined with California’s status as the nation’s largest auto market, that special authority has made the state one of the most influential drivers of national transportation emissions policy, setting a bar for vehicle standards that automakers frequently compete to meet.
On electric vehicles, the automakers have increasingly fallen in line, pledging to shift their production away from vehicles with internal combustion engines and, in some cases, phase those models out entirely.
Those auto industry commitments were a major factor behind the Virginia Auto Dealers Association’s support for the commonwealth’s adoption of the California standards.
Don Hall, the association’s president, is forthright that the group’s backing had little to do with concern over environmental or climate change issues.
“It’s really not about that,” he said. “It’s the fact that (the big automakers) have made the commitment to manufacture and provide EVs, and I don’t want to see Virginia’s dealers be left out in the cold and not have EVs available.”
Virginia consumers have in recent years complained about a lack of availability of electric vehicles on car lots. Hall said that’s directly related to manufacturers prioritizing shipping EVs to states that have aligned with California’s zero-emission vehicle standards, which require an increasing proportion of sales to come from non-emitting vehicles.
“Part of the logic of buying into CARB in Virginia last year when all this was done was it was the only way we were going to get an appropriate number of EVs in Virginia,” said Hall.
As the market shifts toward electric vehicles, however, that problem may disappear.
“To some degree it’s a self-curing problem, “ said Hall, who also noted concerns with the state’s ability to get infrastructure in place to support a growing reliance on electric vehicles. “The question is when does it self-cure by.”
Pollard said he expects Republican opposition to the California standards to continue but hopes Virginia won’t choose to return to the less stringent federal emissions standards.
“The move to cleaner vehicles is consistent with what the auto industry is doing and offers enormous environmental, health and economic benefits. … It’s a huge opportunity for clean air that I’d hate to see Virginia miss,” he said.
Sarah Vogelsong is the Editor-in-Chief of the Virginia Mercury, which first published this report.