A charging cable plugged into an electric vehicle
Credit: Ivan Radic / Flickr

States like Washington and Massachusetts plan to join California in largely banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, seeing it as an effective way to rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

In Minnesota, however, prominent Democrats who celebrated an earlier move toward cleaner vehicles are not supporting the idea — at least not so far. Gov. Tim Walz’s administration hasn’t ruled out a ban on selling new gas cars, though Walz’s regulators strongly suggest it won’t happen any time soon.

Now, a key DFL lawmaker in the Minnesota House from progressive Minneapolis is also throwing cold water on the idea. State Rep. Jamie Long, who leads the House’s Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee said the governor is “taking the right approach” by implementing an earlier and less strict version of California’s auto emissions standards for just one year.

“I think Minnesota is going to go its own path,” Long told MinnPost, saying electric vehicles are less common in Minnesota than other states moving quickly toward EVs. “I think the likelihood that we follow California is probably low.”

Minnesota must decide which auto regulations to follow

Last year, Minnesota adopted what it calls Clean Cars standards. They are identical to California’s auto emission standards, and primarily require auto manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles for sale in the state starting in 2024.

California is the only state that can set its own auto emission regulations, but other states can either choose to follow California or hew to federal standards.

Most Democrats have supported Clean Cars in Minnesota because they argue it will offer more EV choices, stimulate a lagging industry and slash carbon emissions. But Republicans and auto dealers oppose the regulations, saying they meddle with a free market and force expensive EVs on people.

Then, in August, California made the rules tougher. Starting in vehicle model year 2026, the state will allow auto manufacturers to deliver fewer and fewer cars with internal combustion engines for sale until they are largely phased out in 2035. (People will still be able to buy new gas cars in other states or used ones in California. Some new plug-in hybrids that use gasoline will also still remain available.)

That means Minnesota’s older program will run for one year, until 2025. At that point Minnesota will either have to join California in banning new gas cars or reverting to less stringent federal regulations.

The decision for now is in the hands of Walz and his Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The MPCA can act without new legislative approval because of state laws governing pollution regulation, though lawmakers could always change that authority, and their views likely factor into state decisions on the issue.

MPCA commissioner Katrina Kessler on Friday reiterated the agency is not starting a rulemaking process to ban the sale of new gas cars by 2035 and is focused on implementing less aggressive 2025 regulations.

The MPCA has previously estimated EVs would need to make up between 6.2% to 7.4% of new light-duty vehicles sales of manufacturers in Minnesota to meet the original Clean Cars standards.

“We haven’t gotten to the starting point” of the older rules, Kessler said. “It’s premature to try to ask us what are you going to do in three days when we haven’t decided what we’re going to do tomorrow.”

Key House Democrat not calling for car ban

Long, the Minneapolis DFLer, is a prominent voice on climate and energy policy for his party at the state Capitol and is in the progressive wing of his party on the issue.

On Friday, he spoke, wearing a windmill lapel pin, as the governor unveiled a “Climate Action Framework” that details policy hopes held by Democrats, climate nonprofits and some businesses to reduce carbon emissions across the state.

It calls for 20% of vehicles on Minnesota roads to be EVs by 2030 and for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from the transportation sector by 2040. It does not include a ban on selling gas cars, even though such a plan would sharply reduce emissions from a transportation sector that accounts for roughly a quarter of Minnesota’s emissions. Currently, the state is not on track to meet a state goal for reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2025, and the transportation sector carries part of the blame.

Long said Minnesota’s Clean Cars rules will spark the EV market in Minnesota and provide consumers with options already offered in other states trying to increase EV use. After those rules end, Minnesota can reassess where it’s at, he said.

But Long also said Minnesota is different from California and other states. For instance, Long said EVs aren’t as popular here and that the state needs a more robust charging system. Minnesota is the only state in the Midwest to adopt the earlier version of the auto emissions standards.

“I think we need to get to a point first where Minnesotans have the choices to buy electric vehicle options and also that we have the infrastructure to support those choices,” Long said. “I think in the next few years that’s where I want my focus to be, is getting options for Minnesotans for new vehicle purchases.”

Would the reaction from Long, Walz and other Democrats be different if not for this coming midterm election that will decide who is governor and who controls the Legislature? 

Politics can’t be ignored in this case. The issue has been controversial, with some Democrats, particularly in rural areas, opposing the original Clean Cars standard.

Republicans lately have criticized Democrats for what they say is a lack of a clear “yes” or “no” answer on adopting California’s gas car ban. “Right now gas vehicles are $15,000 cheaper than electric,” said Rep. Chris Swedzinkski of Ghent, the top Republican on the House’s climate and energy committee. “This would represent a massive shift with expensive consequences for Minnesota families, businesses, and auto dealers, and we aren’t getting a straight answer from Gov. Walz or his agencies.” 

What Democrats hope to do instead

In the absence of banning sales of new gas cars, Long said he hopes to pass a bill to offer EV rebates, and he said there should be more state funding for electric vehicle chargers. But he also said there has been federal investment in charging and the Inflation Reduction Act will pay for an EV tax credit, among other provisions aimed at sparking the market. Some auto manufacturers have also set their own goals for stopping or limiting the sale of gas vehicles.

By 2025, when the Clean Cars standard in Minnesota is running its short course, Long said “there’s going to be a lot in motion” from the federal government and by auto manufacturers to advance the industry.

Rather than endorse a ban on selling new gas cars, the climate framework unveiled by Walz and the MPCA at an Ecolab facility in Eagan calls for more money for a statewide pedestrian and bicycle network, more transit, and land use policy that “facilitates multimodal transportation.”

One major policy proposal suggested in the framework for slashing carbon emissions from vehicles is what’s known as a “low carbon fuel standard,” which requires that fuels become less “carbon intensive” over time. That would need to be passed by a Legislature that is currently split between the majority-DFL House and the Republican-led Senate.

A version of the policy has been adopted in states like California, Washington and Oregon.

MinnPost is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization whose mission is to provide high-quality journalism for people who care about Minnesota.