California Moves to Phase Out Sale of New Gas-Powered Cars and Light Trucks by 2035

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Electric vehicles charging up in an outdoor SF lot, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Electric vehicles recharge their batteries at the East Crissy Field charging station on March 9, 2022, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California plans to require all new cars, trucks and SUVs to run on electricity or hydrogen by 2035 under a policy approved Thursday by regulators that seeks a dramatic cut in carbon emissions and an eventual end to gasoline-powered vehicles.

The decision by the California Air Resources Board came two years after Gov. Gavin Newsom first directed regulators to consider such a policy. If the goal is reached, officials estimate California would cut emissions from cars in half by 2040.

People can continue driving gas-fueled vehicles and purchasing used ones after 2035. The plan also allows for one-fifth of sales after 2035 to be plug-in hybrids that can run on batteries and gas.

The move gives the most populous U.S. state the world’s most stringent regulations for transitioning to electric vehicles. It is expected to prompt other states to follow California’s lead and to accelerate the production of zero-emission vehicles by automakers.

“This is the most important and the most transformative action that CARB has ever taken,” said Daniel Sperling, a 15-year member of the air board. “I was working through all the different … 2020 standards, low emission vehicles, 1990 cap and trade. This is the most transformative.”

The policy still needs federal approval, but that’s considered very likely under Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.

“This is a historic moment for California, for our partner states, and for the world as we set forth this path toward a zero-emission future,” Liane Randolph, chair of the air board, said during a public hearing before the vote.

“This is a legally binding, enforceable requirement,” Randolph added. “Most of the automakers who have set their targets have a lot of caveats about ... if this happens or that happens ... This is an actual legally enforceable requirement.”

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The policy allows Californians to keep driving gas-powered vehicles and buying used ones after 2035, but no new models would be sold in the state.

One-fifth of automakers’ sales after 2035 could be plug-in hybrids, which run on batteries and gas, but the rest must be powered solely by electricity or hydrogen.

The European Parliament in June backed a plan to effectively prohibit the sale of gas and diesel cars in the 27-nation European Union by 2035, and Canada has mandated the sale of zero-emission cars by the same year.

California climate officials say the state’s new policy is the world’s most ambitious because it sets benchmarks for ramping up electric vehicle sales over the next 13 years.

The first mandated threshold comes in 2026, when one-third of all vehicles sold in the state must be zero-emission. Automakers could be fined $20,000 per vehicle sold short of that goal.

About 16% of cars sold in California in the first three months of this year were electric.

Washington state and Massachusetts already have said they will follow California’s lead, and many more are likely to — New York and Pennsylvania are among 17 states that have adopted some or all of California’s tailpipe emission standards that are stricter than federal rules.

Kia Corp.’s Laurie Holmes said the company plans to spend $25 billion by 2025 on electric vehicles and hopes to offer seven models by 2027.

But she and several other representatives of auto companies expressed concern about the state’s timeline given factors such as supply chain challenges and the high cost of materials to build electric cars.

“Automakers could have significant difficulties meeting this target given elements outside of the control of the industry,” she said.

The switch from gas to electric cars will drastically reduce emissions and air pollutants, but the transition will be painful for the state’s oil industry. California remains the seventh-largest oil-producing U.S. state, though its output is falling as it pushes forward with climate goals.

California shouldn’t wrap its entire transportation strategy around a vehicle market powered by electricity, said Tanya DeRivi, vice president for climate policy with the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry group.

“Californians should be able to choose a vehicle technology, including electric vehicles, that best fits their needs based on availability, affordability and personal necessity,” she said.

California is the nation’s most populous state, with about 39 million people. They account for 10% of the U.S. car market but have 43% of the nation’s 2.6 million registered plug-in vehicles, according to the air board.

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Reaching the 100% goal by 2035 will mean overcoming very practical hurdles, notably enough reliable power and charging stations.

California now has about 80,000 stations in public places, far short of the 250,000 it wants by 2025. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents many major carmakers, warned that a lack of infrastructure, access to materials needed to make batteries, and supply chain issues are among the challenges to meeting the state’s timeline.

The new commitment came as California works to maintain reliable electricity while it moves away from gas-fired power plants in favor of solar, wind and other cleaner sources of energy. Earlier this year, top California energy officials warned the state could run out of power during the hottest days of summer, which happened briefly in August 2020.

That hasn’t happened yet this year. But Newsom, a Democrat, is pushing to keep open the state’s last-remaining nuclear plant beyond its planned closer in 2025, and the state may turn to diesel generators or natural gas plants as a backup when the electrical grid is strained.

Adding more car chargers will put a higher demand on the energy grid.

Ensuring access to charging stations is also key to ramping up electric vehicle sales. The infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year provides $5 billion for states to build charges every 50 miles along interstate highways.

Newsom, meanwhile, has pledged to spend billions to boost zero-emission vehicle sales, including adding chargers in lower-income neighborhoods. The new rules approved by the air board say that the vehicles need to be able to travel 150 miles on one charge.

Driving an electric vehicle long distances today, even in California, requires careful planning about where to stop and charge, said Mary Nichols, former chair of the California Air Resources Board. The money from the state and federal government will go a long way toward boosting that infrastructure and making electric cars a more convenient option, she said.

“This is going to be a transformative process, and the mandate for vehicle sales is only one piece of it,” she said.

Though hydrogen is a fuel option under the new regulations, cars that run on fuel cells have made up less than 1% of car sales in recent years.

Both the state and federal governments have rebates for thousands of dollars to offset the cost of buying electric cars, and the rules include incentives for carmakers to make used electric vehicles available to people with lower and middle incomes.

Over the past 12 years, California has provided more than $1 billion in rebates for the sale of 478,000 electric, plug-in or hybrid vehicles, according to the air board.

This story includes reporting from KQED's Kevin Stark.

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