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Virginia Republicans’ threats to slam the brakes on the state’s groundbreaking clean transportation law are continuing despite the growing appeal of electric vehicles among auto dealers and drivers.

The 2021 legislation known as Clean Cars is designed to rein in carbon pollution by squeezing outsize tailpipe emissions statewide beginning in 2024. Clean Cars is modeled after a program that originated in California that sets stricter  emissions standards for cars and light-duty trucks. It also directs auto manufacturers to deliver significantly higher inventories of electric vehicles to new car dealers. Currently, Virginia’s inventory is low.

The Clean Air Act granted California exclusive authority to draft vehicle emissions standards that are tougher than federal ones because the Golden State was wrestling with such severe smog problems. Other states can choose to follow California’s lead by adopting those more robust standards or continue to stick with the less stringent federal standards. However, they are not allowed to design their own rules.

Virginia legislators’ decision to hitch the state’s tailpipe standards to California has long been unpopular with many Republicans, but that opposition reached a crescendo in late August when California regulators proposed an update to its standards that would ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars beginning in 2035.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would still have to approve the upgrades rolled out by the California Air Resources Board. 

Republican legislators have already pre-filed three bills to constrain Clean Cars months before the next General Assembly session begins on Jan. 11. The blowback was compounded Monday when Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin stated in his first Virginia Energy Plan that the Clean Cars law should be scrapped to protect the electric grid. 

If they succeed, they’ll do so against the wishes of the state’s auto dealers association and Virginians who are frustrated that a shortage of in-state electric vehicles often forces them to shop in Maryland and beyond.

Don Hall, president of the Richmond-based Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, is a native Californian. That affiliation, he said, helps him understand why some Virginians don’t want to be told what to do by a West Coast state with a megaphone on environmental issues.

But he said his trade group for new vehicle dealers continues to champion Clean Cars legislation because his 43 years in the industry have honed his ability to read the tea leaves of transportation’s future.

“All I know is this: The manufacturers are all in with electric vehicles,” Hall said. “I’ve got to make sure my dealers are all in.”

For dealers, EVs about boosting sales

Hall drives an electric Volkswagen ID.4 sport utility vehicle “to set an example.” 

While he doesn’t have figures on how many electric and low-emissions vehicles have been delivered to the 450 dealerships he represents statewide, he said the numbers are “very small.” 

Without Clean Cars, he said, that number would continue to stagnate. States that sign on to California’s rules become priorities for deliveries from auto manufacturers. 

“I would love to tell you this is all about the environment, but that is not my motivation,” Hall said. “I don’t want to see my Virginia dealers cut out because they won’t have cars people want to drive. I want to make sure they have vehicles consumers will continue to demand.”

Related: Auto dealer sees Clean Cars as great first step for electric vehicles in Virginia

As of May, Virginia is one of 17 states — and the District of Columbia — that has followed California’s lead and adopted its regulations for tailpipe emissions in some fashion. The phasing in of electric vehicles gives auto manufacturers the flexibility to generate, buy and sell credits to meet the standards.

Hall is disappointed Virginia legislators couldn’t find the momentum to fund incentives in the form of rebates to entice “average folks” to join early adopters in purchasing electric vehicles.

For instance, one bill that failed to pass last year would have reduced the upfront cost of an electric vehicle with a $2,500 point-of-sale rebate for Virginians purchasing new, used or leased vehicles up to $55,000. Low- to moderate-income buyers would have received an additional $2,000. 

Such rebates are hot potatoes across the country as legislators fret about  subsidizing a purchase that will be made anyway or seen as an unnecessary giveaway to wealthier residents.

Hall said rebates — “money on the hood,” in dealer-speak — shouldn’t last forever, just long enough to bump up sales.

“If you don’t put money where your mandate is,” Hall said, it indicates “you must not be committed to the program.”

‘Going electric’ sends a message 

Meanwhile, as drama over Clean Cars unfolds in Richmond,  Charlottesville-based Generation 180 has co-launched a “National Going Electric Pledge Campaign” in its home state and beyond.

“Despite EV demand outpacing supply, consumers can still send a powerful message to the auto industry, legislators, and everyday folks by pledging to make their next new or used car purchase an EV,” said Generation 180 Executive Director Wendy Philleo. 

Electric vehicles represented roughly 3% of the 15 million new car sales across the country in 2021. 

In November 2020, Philleo’s nonprofit advocacy group released a comprehensive report indicating that more than half of Virginians are amenable to electrifying their next ride. But barriers such as a shortage of car lot inventory and a lack of point-of-sale rebates are stalling the electric vehicle adoption rate at below 2% statewide.

Virginia then ranked 13th nationwide in electric vehicle sales. The top 14 states with the highest electric vehicle sales accounted for 81.1% of U.S. electric vehicle sales in 2020. Of those states, only Colorado and Illinois generate more than 30% of their electricity from coal

Electric vehicle supporters have touted Clean Cars as an enormous leap forward for reining in transportation emissions. That sector — which accounts for at least half of Virginia’s heat-trapping gas emissions — is also the leading source of carbon emissions nationwide. 

Proponents count on Senate Dems 

In 2021, Clean Cars was carried by Democrats on a straight party-line vote in both the House of Delegates and the Senate. 

The measure was signed into law by former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat whose four-year term ended in mid-January. Virginia governors are barred from serving consecutive terms.

In this year’s legislative session, a Senate with a slim Democratic majority was able to keep Clean Cars intact despite a vote in the House of Delegates to repeal it. In November 2021, voters had flipped the House of Delegates back to a GOP majority.

Proponents of Clean Cars hope the Senate holds the line again next year. Thus far, two of the bills to repeal Clean Cars in the upcoming General Assembly session were pre-filed in the Senate, still led by Democrats, and one was in the House.

Trip Pollard, a senior attorney who specializes in transportation issues with the Southern Environmental Law Center, expects more such measures are on the way. He said he is dismayed that Republicans are again intent on undoing a law that hasn’t even taken effect yet. Beyond addressing climate change, he noted, Clean Cars is a victory for the health of Virginians.

For years, advocates have emphasized the link between tailpipe emissions and asthma, other respiratory diseases and an array of health setbacks.

Exhaust pollutants such as fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds can disproportionately affect families living near highways, often low-income residents and minorities. Those populations, plus the elderly, experience a 61% higher death rate attributable to Virginia vehicle air pollution. 

The overall health burden caused by fine particulate matter contained within Virginia’s vehicle emissions amounts to $750 million annually, according to a study prepared for Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action.

“They want to repeal Clean Cars, but offer zero alternatives,” Pollard said. “But this is the future.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.