California Gov. Gavin Newsom, apparently still intoxicated by his unchecked coronavirus-created power of edict, grabbed national headlines last month with a show-stopping executive order that promises to save the planet from climate-change-induced doom. He announced a “bold” plan to ban the sale of internal-combustion vehicles — taking a step that even our wacky, progressive Legislature had recently deemed to be too far-reaching.
“This is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change,” the governor said. “For too many decades, we have allowed cars to pollute the air that our children and families breathe. Californians shouldn’t have to worry if our cars are giving our kids asthma.… Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”
The car-ban mandate would potentially slow the transition to electric cars by anyone without the means to purchase a brand-new vehicle.
In a sane world, the public and media would have greeted such an announcement with a loud echo of guffaws. There’s his unfathomable claim that a car ban would create jobs and economic growth. Then there’s his obvious hubris. It’s hard to imagine what our nation’s founders would say about a governor (or even a president) shuttering entire industries with the stroke of a pen. I agree that climate change is a problem, but this isn’t a solution.
At the time of the governor’s announcement, California was in the thick of its latest crisis, as wildfires consumed millions of acres of forestlands and covered its valleys in dangerously polluted air. Newsom blamed climate change for that also, rather than the state and federal government’s incompetent land-management practices and other more practical factors.
It was really strange — and a bit third-world-like — to hear the governor demand that all new vehicles be run by electric batteries just as utility companies were shutting off electrical power, as a way to keep more of the state from burning up. “[H]ow you expect to run an electric car fleet that will come with significant increases in electricity demand, when you can’t even keep the lights on today?” retorted EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
Anyone could see that this executive order was little more than a short-sighted publicity stunt. The ban won’t kick in until 2035 — nine years after Newsom will (presumably) be out of office. That’s the oldest trick in a politician’s playbook. Propose some grandiose plan, but make sure it doesn’t go into effect until it’s someone else’s problem.
By 2035, any 2020 executive order will be meaningless. Who can realistically predict the state of the car industry 15 years into the future? A new Legislature and governor will amend the proposal to match any existing realities, provided the federal courts hadn’t already tossed it out. And there’s less to it than meets the eye. For instance, the governor’s ban would allow car owners to continue to use their gas-powered vehicles and sell them to new owners.
Even if it is implemented as written, the car-ban mandate would potentially slow the transition to electric cars by anyone without the means to purchase a brand-new vehicle. This is yet another example of how California lawmakers, despite their incessant blathering about “environmental justice,” implement policies that hurt poor people the most. Obviously, a poor working stiff with an old pickup truck couldn’t just go out and buy a pricey new EV.
The automobile industry already is shifting toward an electrified future. I oppose subsidies to EV manufacturers (and to all carmakers and corporations, for that matter), but am pleased to see their growing market share in California and elsewhere. As a car nut, I appreciate electric cars’ amazing levels of torque, sleek designs, and low-cost operation.
Even though they shift pollution from tailpipes to electrical-generating plants, EVs do reduce overall emissions. Like most other consumers, however, my reluctance to buy one centers mainly on practicalities. I worry about range anxiety (running out of electricity during a trip) and the high price of entry, as EVs cost around 50 percent more than gasoline vehicles. As batteries improve and prices fall (see the forthcoming Nissan Ariya, with a projected 300-mile range and $40,000 MSRP), more people will buy them.
Government directives simply cannot create functioning consumer markets, as an unrelated matter brings to mind. A 2019 Guardian investigation found that “cities around the country are no longer recycling many types of plastic dropped into recycling bins. Instead, they are being landfilled, burned or stockpiled. From Los Angeles to Florida to the Arizona desert, officials say, vast quantities of plastic are now no better than garbage.”
California’s edict-addicted lawmakers have not been able to magically create a market for recycled products, just as they can’t — with the stroke of a pen — boost the market for EVs by 90 percent. Current plug-in vehicles (pure electric and plug-in hybrids) comprise nearly 8 percent of California’s car sales. Californians buy the bulk of electric cars nationwide. That’s good news, but is mainly a function of growing demand as EVs increasingly make economic sense.
If California weren’t so busy chasing manufacturers to other states with its excessive regulations, high taxes, and restrictive labor laws, it would have a more boisterous electric-vehicle industry — and one that could offer its products at more reasonable prices. The state can help improve charging infrastructure, perhaps, but markets and incentives — rather than bans, subsidies, and executive orders — are a much better way to achieve their desired goals.
Our leaders are unlikely to revisit their approach for some obvious reasons. It’s less enjoyable for a governor to create an atmosphere in which private companies thrive than it is to hold grandiose press conferences that promise to ban gasoline cars and complain about the impact of automobiles on the Earth’s glaciers.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at email@example.com.