As electric vehicle sales decline, the US is relaxing plans for stricter auto emissions standards

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is expected to announce new auto emissions standards this week that will relax proposed limits for three years but ultimately reach the same strict standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The changes come as sales of electric vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions, which are needed to meet standards, are starting to slow. The auto industry has cited lower sales growth as it objects to the EPA’s preferred standards unveiled last April as part of the most ambitious plan yet to cut global-warming emissions from passenger cars.

The EPA suggested that the industry could meet the limits under its preferred alternative if 67 percent of new vehicle sales were electric by 2032.

But during a public comment period on the 2027 through 2032 standards, the auto industry called the benchmarks unworkable as electric vehicle sales decline as consumers worry about cost, range and a lack of publicly available charging stations.

WATCH: Why major automakers are slowing electric vehicle production

Three people with knowledge of the standards say the Biden EPA will choose an alternative that delays implementation from 2027 to 2029 but ramps up to reach the level the EPA preferred from 2030 to 2032. The alternative will see other changes that will help the auto industry meet the standards, including the calculation of how electric vehicle fuel economy is measured, one of the people said.

The people, two from the auto industry and one from government, did not want to be identified because the new standards have not been made public by the EPA.

The changes appear aimed at addressing strong industry resistance to the accelerated ramp-up of electric vehicles, along with public reluctance to fully embrace the new technology. There is also a legitimate threat of legal challenges to conservative courts.

The Supreme Court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, has increasingly curbed the powers of federal agencies, including the EPA, in recent years. The justices have limited the EPA’s authority to combat air and water pollution — including a landmark 2022 ruling that limited the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming.

Biden has made the fight against climate change a hallmark of his presidency and is seeking to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline vehicles, which are the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, Biden needs cooperation from the auto industry and political support from auto workers, a key political voting bloc. The United Auto Workers union, which has endorsed Biden, has said it supports the transition to electric vehicles but wants to ensure that jobs are preserved and that the industry pays the highest wages to workers who build the electric vehicles and batteries.

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White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that White House officials “have no concerns” about the EPA rule, which could be announced as early as Wednesday.

“We know it takes time with these kinds of things,” she told reporters on Air Force One as Biden travels to Nevada. “But we remain committed to our (climate) objectives.”

Overall, environmental groups are optimistic about the new EPA plan.

Manish Bapna, chairman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told reporters last week that he expects the rule to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from cars and light trucks, which are the source of a fifth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Based on what we’re hearing, there’s no reason to doubt that climate regulations for cars and light trucks will cut more than 90 percent of CO2 pollution from new cars, SUVs and pickup trucks in the coming decades.” Bapna said. “That’s huge.”

Between 2027 and 2055, the EPA rule “will prevent more than 70 billion metric tons of climate-destroying carbon emissions. That’s more than the nation generates in a year. It is absolutely essential, real, concrete progress,” Bapna said.

“EPA’s clean car standards will put the pedal to the metal as the U.S. races to achieve cleaner, healthier air for all,” said Amanda Leland, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, another environmental group.

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Exhaust pipes release dangerous particulate pollution and smog and are one of the largest sources of climate pollution in the country, Leland said. “Strong clean car standards mean cleaner air and a safer climate, thousands of dollars in cost savings for our families, and hundreds of thousands of new American manufacturing jobs.”

Luke Tonachel, an automotive expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the new clean car standards will encourage the auto industry to “continue investing, as it is already beginning to do, over the long term” in electric vehicles and zero-emission vehicles. The rule will also send a signal to infrastructure providers and utilities to further build out charging infrastructure,” he said.

But Dan Becker of the Center for Biological Diversity said he fears loopholes in the law will allow the industry to continue selling gas burners. He also worries that the industry will do little in the first three years of the standards, which could be undone if Donald Trump is elected president.

“The bottom line is that the government is giving in to pressure from big oil companies, big car companies and dealers to slow progress on electric cars and now allow more pollution from cars,” Becker said.

At a rally in the Detroit area in September, Trump emphasized that Biden’s embrace of electric vehicles — a key part of his clean energy agenda — would ultimately lead to job losses. “He’s selling you to China, he’s selling you to the environmental extremists and the radical left,” Trump told his audience.

Republicans and some in the industry have said the rule would require 67 percent of new vehicle sales to be electric by 2032, forcing people to buy cars, trucks and SUVs they are not yet ready to accept.

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But EPA Administrator Michael Regan has said the new rule is a performance standard that leaves it up to industry to come up with solutions.

US electric vehicle sales grew 47 percent last year to a record 1.19 million, while EV market share rose to 7.6 percent from 5.8 percent in 2022. But EV sales growth slowed toward the end of the year. In December they rose by 34 percent.

The Alliance for Auto Innovation, a major industry trade group, said in a news release that the EPA’s initial proposed increase to 67 percent is too fast for the industry to achieve. The EPA’s pace of electric vehicle adoption exceeds President Joe Biden’s goal of having electric vehicles make up half of new vehicle sales by 2030, the group said.

“Where we will be (or not be) in 2032 is unclear at this time,” the group said. “But moderating the pace of electric vehicle adoption in 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030 would be the right decision as it prioritizes more reasonable and achievable electrification goals over the next few (very critical) years.”

The EPA’s preferred standards bring CO2 emissions from 152 grams per mile in 2026 to 73 grams per mile in 2032, a 52 percent reduction. By 2029, the limits would be 99 grams per mile.

But under the alternative that environmental groups expect the EPA to adopt, the standards would be relaxed in the first three years, to 112 grams by 2029, but still 73 grams by 2032.

AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher reported from Detroit. AP reporter Seung Min Kim of Air Force One contributed to this story.

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