Democrats on Virginia Senate committee reject Clean Car standards repeal

Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, speaks to the Senate Agriculture, Chesepeake and Natural Resources committee Tuesday. (Charlie Paullin/Virginia Mercury)

By Charlie Paullin, The Virginia Mercury

January 18, 2023

Along party lines, a Virginia Senate committee on Tuesday voted to kill a slate of Republican proposals to repeal the state’s adoption of California’s Clean Car standards, which set stricter vehicle emissions limits than the federal government imposes and mandate that all new vehicles sold be zero-emission starting in 2035.

by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury

The Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee voted 8-7 to pass by indefinitely the repeal bill from Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford. Newman’s bill had four other similar Republican bills rolled into it before it was defeated.

Virginia is going to “stay the course,” said Committee Chair Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, before the vote. 

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, characterized the issue as a matter of public health.

“I think people suffering from all kinds of diseases would do better if we had cleaner air,” Favola said. “And the only way we are going to get there is if we have incentives … that the law can provide.”

The failed legislation would have untied Virginia from vehicle emissions regulations adopted by the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, and returned the state to federal regulations.

Continuing climate change fight, Virginia lawmakers commit to clean car standards

Under the federal Clean Air Act, states can choose to follow vehicle emissions regulations imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or California, which was granted an exception to write its own, more stringent regulations to address its smog issues. States are prohibited from writing their own tailpipe emission standards. 

In 2022, CARB adopted a rule that will ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles beginning in 2035. Virginia’s office of the attorney general has indicated it believes Virginia will have to do the same under the 2021 law linking the state with the California standards. 

Newman and other Republicans have argued the requirements of the rapid phaseout, including the target that 35% of new car sales be electric by 2026, are unachievable.

“We are planning to fail on this,” Newman said, warning that Virginia could face steep penalties by not meeting the targets. 

Other Republicans raised concerns over the cost of electric vehicles and battery repairs, as well as grid reliability.

“It’s complete lunacy,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has publicly backed Republican proposals to return Virginia to the federal vehicle emissions standards, with Deputy Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Jennifer Walle on Tuesday testifying in favor of Newman’s bill. The Virginia Manufacturers Association also supported the Republican legislation, with president and CEO Brett Vassey saying pollution is being “exported” to other countries where the minerals used to produce batteries are harvested. 

Democrats, however, noted that the California regulations don’t prohibit the sale of used gas vehicles and argued that major manufacturers already have committed to transitioning their fleets to electric vehicles.

“Clean air, clean soil, clean water — in my orbit, that trumps other things,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond. “I don’t like mandates, but when it comes to the environment, I’m accepting of that because I want clean air, water and soil.”

Trip Pollard, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the requirement that 35% of vehicles sold by manufacturers in Virginia be zero-emission by 2026 could be reduced because the bill Virginia passed in 2021 allows manufacturers to bank and trade credits to meet a certain proportion of their obligations. 

Josh Fisher with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents auto manufacturers, said while his organization is neutral on legislative proposals, EV sales are growing across the U.S., constituting 19% of new car sales in California and 7% nationwide in 2022, according to its own data. In February 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said 12% of the state’s new car sales were electric in 2021.

And Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said PJM, the regional electric grid Virginia is connected to, has more capacity than at any point in its history.

“With this attack now behind us, Virginia can move forward on making pollution progress, rather than move backward,” Shepherd told the Mercury after the vote.

The defeat of the Senate proposals doesn’t end Republican efforts to roll back the California standards this session. A similar bill is being carried in the House of Delegates by Del. Tony Wilt, R-Harrisonburg. 

However, should Wilt’s bill advance and reach the Senate side, it will face a similar fate, Favola told the Virginia Mercury after Tuesday’s meeting.

If the House bill makes it over, “that bill goes down in defeat as well,” Favola said.

This article was updated with the correct name of the committee.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: [email protected]. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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