With gasoline prices still soaring like fugitive helium balloons, the state’s Air Resources Board shouldn’t be pulling the plug on California’s electric car program. Yet when the board meets Thursday it will consider dumping its core rule, lifting any obligation for most automakers to produce zero-emission vehicles for the next several years.
Electric cars are the only vehicles with no tailpipe emissions. The 26 million cars on the road in California still spew enough smog-causing emissions to keep the state in violation of federal clean-air laws. Yet the proposal before the air board this week would allow automakers to comply with state clean-air rules with only lowered-emission gas vehicles and hybrid gas-electric vehicles (including some new models that will reduce gas consumption by only 10% or 15%).
The air board staff says it believes that a temporary federal court injunction issued last year in a lawsuit by car makers forces it to amend its requirement that 2% of new cars sold in California be nonpolluting. But the proposed changes go beyond the scope of the suit, which claims that when the board rewrote emissions rules two years ago it veered into the federal government’s authority to set fuel-efficiency standards. An appeals court will soon decide whether to lift that injunction and a trial will eventually rule on the merits of the industry’s claim. Why not wait for these rulings before gutting the program? Alternatively, electric-car supporters say a much more modest change of wording would cure the problem.
Electric vehicles still cost too much and don’t go far enough between charges to compete with gas-powered cars. But electrics are valuable niche cars -- good for in-town driving and a key part of public fleets in cities like Los Angeles. Technical improvements, including better batteries, will bolster their marketability. But dropping the zero-emission mandate would doom this technology and throw away $10 million in publicly funded charging stations and other infrastructure investments.
The air board staff argues that the gasoline-electric hybrid cars that Toyota and Honda sell (and soon to be sold by General Motors) are more marketable than electrics and that fuel cells show more promise than batteries in the longer run. Hybrid vehicles, which can wring at maximum 60 miles from a gallon of gas, are certainly a major advance. But manufacturers, which have fought nearly every safety and air quality rule, would not have made them marketable without a zero-emission mandate on their backs.
The air board staff is no doubt worn down by constant battle with car makers. The elected board, however, should stand fast.