Electric Cars: Policy Beyond Capability?

Peter Van Doren

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced proposed emission standards that would mandate a large increase in the sale of new zero‐​emission vehicles from model years 2027 through 2032. Compliance with the proposed rule is estimated to require 67 percent of new vehicles to be electric in 2032 compared to 5.8 percent in 2022. Informed analysts claim that the rule is extremely ambitious: “The new rule will effectively try to shove electric vehicles down the throats of the public at a faster rate than it has shown a willingness to swallow them.” The Energy Information Administration in its 2023 Annual Energy Outlook (Figure 10) would seem to confirm the ambitious nature of the proposed rule, projecting electric vehicles sales of around 15 percent in the early 2030s and still under 20 percent by 2050.

But the unrealistic nature of the proposal is actually a persistent characteristic of environmental policy. So persistent, in fact, that Charles Jones used the phrase “policy beyond capability” in a 1975 book (chapters 7–8). Alan Altshuler in a 1979 book (p. 73) elaborated: “There was a widespread view in 1970 that the manufacturers could do virtually anything if simply told they had to.”

The history of environmental regulation consists of ambitious unrealistic goals followed by missed deadlines and lack of enforcement. The most ambitious unrealistic goal was the California legislative proposal in 1970 to ban the internal combustion engine by 1975. The California State Senate approved the bill while floor consideration in the Assembly failed by one vote. The 1970 national Clean Air Act required ambient air quality standards be achieved by 1975. The deadlines were extended many times (pp. 237–238). By 2005, of the 338 deadlines set by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 only 37 had been met by the deadline (Table 2) specified in the statute.

This pattern has been described (pp. 239–240) as “Institutionalized Nonattainment.” As of March 2022, 15 counties with a population of 20,941,659 are in nonattainment of the 2012 annual standard for particulate matter (PM2.5). For pollutants other than PM2.5,37 states, districts, and territories have nonattainment counties with a total population of 131,418,000. Finally, as of 2016 over half of U.S. river and stream miles violate water quality standards.

If agencies attempt to implement unrealistic policies Congress often retreats quietly. It enacts legislative language to the monies appropriated for the Departments that restricts their ability to implement unrealistic regulations. To implement the 1970 Clean Air Act requirements the EPA proposed parking surcharges and parking space reductions. Congress responded in 1974 with a ban on use of any EPA funds to regulate parking (Altshuler pp. 78–79).

Under rare circumstances unrealistic policies proceed far enough to alienate voters and receive direct congressional attention. 1974 model year automobiles were required to have electronics that prevented automobiles from being started unless the seatbelts were in use. Motorists revolted and in October 1974 Congress enacted (pp. 180–81) legislation (pp. 21, 42–43) prohibiting the use of that technology or any seat belt warning buzzer that sounded for more than eight seconds.

Environmental policy has these characteristics because it has a large theological component. Saving the planet is different from bargaining over the Library of Congress Budget: “the emissions of greenhouse gases from Interior Department lands (about 20 percent of the United States) were ‘playing God’ with the Earth’s climate.”

So, the Biden EPA proposal is probably unrealistic. But environmental policy proposals have always been unrealistic. The retreat from unrealism will probably be quiet. But if motorists can’t buy the cars they want, the retreat will be visible and rapid.

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