By The Herald Editorial Board
With Washington state having set the goal earlier this year to restrict the sale of new vehicles to electric vehicles and other zero-carbon-emission vehicles by 2030, Gov. Jay Inslee announced recently that the state would strengthen that goal by adopting a rule that follows California’s lead to bar the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
With transportation accounting for about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the state that contribute to climate change — and gasoline-powered cars and light trucks pumping out 25 percent of total emissions — supporters are looking to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels to electric and other zero-emission vehicles.
“This is a critical milestone in our climate fight,” Inslee tweeted, announcing that Washington state would join California, just a day after that state announced its landmark plan.
Count on seeing an increasing number of EVs sold and on the road in coming years, if those expectations hold. The California rule — that Washington state and other states will now seek to make official for themselves — also mandates steps toward the 2035 date, requiring that zero-emission sales in that state reach 35 percent of sales by 2026 and 68 percent by 2030.
Washington state has a long road ahead to reach those numbers in sales that will increase the number of EVs on the road. But the number of registered EVs and plug-in hybrids on Washington roads is already accelerating from about 61,000 in May 2020 to nearly 105,000 as of this July, according to state licensing data.
Along with the sticks of regulation at the state level, are some carrots in the form of tax credits and other rebates intended to make EVs a more affordable choice for consumers. Currently, Washington state exempts the sale and lease of electric vehicles from sales tax. And Snohomish County Public Utility District customers are eligible for a $500 rebate toward the purchase of a Level 2 home charging station, along with a $400 bill credit for the purchase of a new or used EV.
And passage by Congress of the Inflation Reduction Act has updated and expanded the federal tax credits available — $7,500 for a new vehicle and $4,000 for a used vehicle — although there are some conditions to what vehicles qualify. Along with a cap on price, the tax credit requires that the vehicle’s final assembly be in the U.S.; and there are similar requirements for the manufacture of vehicle batteries and the source of minerals used in the batteries.
Those requirements were a condition sought by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who after months of debate worked out a deal for the IRA with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. While those restrictions will initially limit the availability of vehicles eligible for the carrot of the tax credit, there’s a larger purpose here.
“I don’t believe that we should be building a transportation mode on the backs of foreign supply chains,” Manchin said, prior to the IRA’s passage.
Manchin, to his credit, may be taking the long view here. It makes little sense to transition from an over-reliance on foreign fossil fuels to a dependence on Chinese batteries and minerals. The same goes for solar panels, wind turbines and computer chips.
Matthew Metz, executive director of the Seattle-based Coltura, an advocate for zero-emission vehicles and transportation, agrees.
“I don’t think Manchin was in a hurry to speed this up, but in a lot of ways it is a positive that this is going to be a made-in-America industry. It’s going to give a huge competitive advantage to people that make their batteries and vehicles and source their minerals here,” Metz said in an interview last week.
While the conditions that EV tax credits be reserved only for vehicles assembled in America and using only American-made batteries and related components will limit the availability of vehicles eligible for the rebate in the short-term, it should encourage a quicker build-up of American manufacturing and greater sustainability for the supply of electric vehicles. The sustainability of family-wage American jobs is no less important.
Honda and LG announced last week that they plan to build a $4.4 billion battery factory, likely in Ohio, to supply U.S. vehicles, that could begin construction next year and begin production by 2025. Honda, yet to offer an EV, plans to launch an electric SUV, the Prologue, in 2024. LG also is partnering with GM on similar battery manufacturing projects in Ohio and Tennessee.
The road may not be as smooth for the regulation sought by California, Washington state and others. Metz expects a legal challenge. Already 17 Republican state attorneys general have filed suit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency, challenging the provision in the Clean Air Act that grants California — and the states that join it — the ability to set emissions restrictions.
It wouldn’t be a stretch, Metz said, to envision the U.S. Supreme Court — following its recent ruling rejecting the EPA’s ability to regulate coal-fired power plants, and even the overruling of Roe v. Wade — overturning states’ authority to set rules related to vehicle emissions.
But that makes the Legislature’s move earlier this year, he said — to set goals for EV sales as part of its transportation package — important, because those would remain in effect regardless of a court challenge.
Momentum — in public demand for electric vehicles and in automakers’ commitment to meeting that demand — should overtake any effort to slow the transition away from fossil fuels.
“We’re right at the cusp of that,” Metz said. Automakers “are making huge commitments to EVs. In Europe it’s clear that they are not going to be able to sell gas cars there after mid-2030s. That’s a strong trend. I think we’re getting close to the tipping point.”