As gas prices spike, California focuses on zero-emission cars

An electric car charging station at Niello BMW in Sacramento on Sept. 12, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

It’s full speed ahead for zero-emission cars in California.

The Golden State got the green light Wednesday to proceed with its nation-leading clean car program after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reinstated a waiver reaffirming its decades-old authority to set emission limits stricter than the federal government’s — setting the stage for California to develop auto emission rules to meet Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goal of eliminating new gas-powered cars by 2035

The move wasn’t a surprise — President Joe Biden had long hinted at plans to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to block California from setting its own tailpipe pollution standards for cars and light trucks.

And although California had continued to set its own standards even without the waiver, the stakes surrounding gasoline-powered cars have heightened in recent weeks. 

California is reeling from the highest gas prices in the nation — Wednesday’s average price was $5.58 per gallon, up 14 cents from the day before and an all-time high when not accounting for inflation — and oil industry groups are increasing pressure on Newsom and state lawmakers to ramp up the state’s oil production in the wake of a U.S. ban on imports from Russia.

  • Nearly half of Russian oil shipped into the U.S. last year ended up primarily in refineries in California, Washington and Hawaii, the Los Angeles Times reports.
  • The Western States Petroleum Association: “If the Newsom administration would approve the more than 1,000 permits for new production that have been waiting for months, and in some cases years, California could immediately increase supplies of affordable, reliable energy for ourselves and the West. … As we bring on more renewable and sustainable energy sources, we can acknowledge the fact that the affordable energy our industry provides will be needed for decades to come.”

Newsom, however, doubled down on clean energy production in his Tuesday night State of the State speech — “We need to be fighting polluters, not bolstering them … freeing us once and for all from the grasp of petro-dictators” — and in a Wednesday statement applauding the federal waiver.

  • Newsom: This “is a major victory for the environment, our economy and the health of families across the country that comes at a pivotal moment underscoring the need to end our reliance on fossil fuels. California looks forward to partnering with the Biden administration to make a zero-emission future a reality for all Americans.”

Newsom isn’t alone in urging the state to stay the course on transitioning away from fossil fuels.

  • The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to reject a proposal that would have allowed ExxonMobil to take a key step toward restarting three offshore oil wells shut down after a 2015 pipeline leak.
  • And former Gov. Jerry Brown, in an interview with the Associated Press, warned against increasing oil production to offset soaring gas prices: “Accelerating oil and gas in America would go against the climate goals, and climate is like war: If we don’t handle it, people are going to die and they’re going to be suffering. Not immediately, but over time.”

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