Column: What we lose when California bans gas-powered cars
Some parents offer their children a blessing every time they see them.
My dad’s holy water is gasoline.
Whenever I visit him, he looks under my car to make sure the fuel lines aren’t leaking, then switches on the ignition to see if the tank is at least half full, like he says it always should be. Whenever Dad visits me, he comes holding a five-gallon gas can to top off the lawnmower, weeder and edger we use on the patch of lawn I keep so we can have something to do together.
He’s a retired truck driver, someone who always tries to ride in style despite his limited income. So most of Dad’s life lessons center on the combustion engine. Check the timing belts every morning. Ten cents saved on a gallon of lower-octane gas will cost you later. Always carry a wrench, jumper cables and a quart of oil. If you can’t own a truck, know someone who does.
Dad imbued me with a love of cars that continues. I own four gas-guzzling relics — a beat-up 1968 VW Bus, an immaculate 1974 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, a sturdy 1979 Ford Supercab and a 2005 GMC Yukon that’s my daily driver. Yep, I wince at the pump every day — but I largely don’t mind, because I love ‘em.
When my future wife told me about a decade ago that I should buy a VW Bus, I laughed.
Strangers and friends are always surprised because I seem like a Prius-driving liberal. I keep my fleet because it connects me to my self-sustaining, rancho libertarian roots. I boast that three of my four cars have carburetors, then laugh as I have to explain what one is. Owning an older car means constant vigilance and the acceptance that sooner or later, good times are going to break down. Besides, my jalopies force me to pay attention while I drive, since the most advanced thing any of them carries is a CD player.
So when I heard that California has banned the sale of new gas-powered cars after 2035, I didn’t immediately celebrate.
The development came via a vote by the California Air Resources Board, two years after Gov. Gavin Newsom tasked its members with developing and implementing a plan to accomplish the audacious goal. It’s the latest move in the state’s battle against anything that uses fossil fuels.
The Air Resources Board last year banned the sale of gas-powered gardening equipment starting in 2024 and portable generators by 2028. More than 50 cities are limiting or outlawing natural gas in new homes and businesses. California is supposed to reach 100% renewable energy by 2045, and Newsom pushed the state Legislature earlier this month to make it harder to tap into new oil and natural gas wells near schools.
We’re doing all this to fight climate change and set an example for everyone else. Lauren Sanchez, Newsom’s climate advisor, described the gas-engine ban as “a huge day not only for California but the entire world.”
I’m all for cutting back on emissions. They exacerbate climate change, poison our environment and disproportionately affect minority communities, like the one I grew up in, right next to the 91 Freeway that divides Anaheim and Fullerton. I appreciate California thinking big and its willingness to lead on important issues while other states look on. Coming into the Los Angeles Basin on a sunny morning and seeing a tarry gray cloud over it is a grim reminder of what we’ve done to ourselves.
But a crackdown on gas engines also threatens a communion that working-class Californians have shared for decades.
Learning how to work on your car is a rite of passage in car culture, a torch passed from hot rodders to lowriders, van-life hipsters to import-car enthusiasts. Maybe you can’t own a home, but you can at least maintain something and call it your own.
You learn to respect the engine’s various facets, whether you’re a gearhead or not. The different greases and grimes each part creates. The deep smell of oil, the acrid stench of gas. The symphony of sounds — a roar, a purr, a putter — each engine creates. An ecosystem of enthusiasts, generalists and specialists creates community (if mostly among men).
All of this is now endangered. California officials insist that only new gas-powered cars are being targeted. But no one buys that. In 2004, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed the so-called grandfather clause on smog checks, which exempted cars older than 30 years. Now, it applies only to models from before 1975. With the new regulations, the slow drip against the combustion engine turns into a fire hose.
Again, I get the reason why. But telling Californians that banning combustion engines is necessary to save the planet isn’t enough. The Air Resources Board also needs to realize that the culture gas-powered cars created is one that electric cars will have a hell of a time replacing. There’s no emotional attachment yet from the masses, and I don’t think there ever can be.
Nothing is cheap on electrics. Something as simple as getting out of the car turns into a dystopian mess if the computer doesn’t cooperate. Most need specialized mechanics for the tiniest fixes — you can’t call over a cousin to check on your car in the driveway. Their shape and feel remain robotic and antiseptic. Their sickly wheeze when on the move is such a stumbling block for blue-collar types that the electric version of Dodge’s iconic Charger muscle car will roar just like its gas-powered ancestor. Electric cars also aren’t as harmless for the environment as proponents make them out to be, since mining for the rare-earth minerals that power them threatens oceans and Native American reservations alike.
These are just some of the reasons only a handful of my friends and family float around in electrics. Families tend to get hybrid SUVs; men favor mamalonas (massive trucks) or muscle cars that proudly belch out exhaust. None is conservative; all believe in climate change. But the state will have to pry their Silverados from their cold, dead hands.
These might seem like selfish and trivial points in the face of the existential dread that is our air-quality emergency. But to dismiss such concerns is classic elitism. You can’t shame the working class out of what brings them joy. That’s why the Air Resources Board hasn’t outright outlawed gas-powered engines ... yet.
Bans in the name of saving the Earth almost always fall on the very people they claim to uplift. I sadly know this from experience.
In 2006, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach announced a program to ban all but the newest big rigs, in the name of cracking down on diesel emissions. The Air Resources Board eventually adopted the same regulations. Drivers whose rigs were no longer eligible either had to buy a new model or retrofit their old ones, costing thousands of dollars that self-employed truckers didn’t have.
Many lost their jobs. One of them was my father.
Dad was too old to justify buying a new truck, yet too young to retire. He had to sell off his Kenworth and remained unemployed for years as a glut of younger truckers flooded the market.
California is banking that its gas-engine ban will succeed because the automobile industry will mass-produce electric vehicles and the market will then drop enough to make them affordable. But that’s technocratic thinking.
Gas and oil are California sacraments that working people won’t give up so easily. The Air Resources Board is going to have to do more than offer subsidies to win them over. When you tell someone they have to give up their way of life because you say so, they’re going to double down, even if they know it’s ultimately wrong.
Just look at me.
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