Virginia House and Senate divided over "clean cars" law

(The Center Square) – Virginia lawmakers are divided on proposals seeking to repeal the state’s so-called “clean cars” law, which aligns the Commonwealth with California’s vehicle emission regulations, with an aim to reduce carbon pollution and address climate change.

Virginia lawmakers in two committees – one in the House of Delegates and one in the Senate – cast votes this week on similar bills proposing repeals to the state's alignment with California's Clean Car standards. California’s standards set more stringent emission limits than the federal government, outline targets for electric vehicle sales and mandates that all new vehicles sold in the state be zero-emission starting in 2035.

Lawmakers on the House Committee of Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources voted 12-9 Wednesday to advance a bill that would repeal the state's Clean Car standards, while lawmakers on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources voted 8-7 along party lines Tuesday to kill a slate of bills proposing similar repeals.

If the proposed repeal that advanced out of the House committee Wednesday passes the full chamber, it will have to face lawmakers on the Senate committee, where it is likely to be killed.

Under the federal Clean Air Act, states can either align with California’s regulations on vehicle emissions or the federal government’s standards – states are not authorized to set their own emission standards. The General Assembly voted in 2021 to align with California’s standards, which will require starting in 2024 that a percentage of new cars sold be electric or hybrid, and all cars sold be zero-emission beginning in 2035.

Advocates and lawmakers in support of upholding Virginia’s adoption of California’s regulations say these standards represent a “significant step” to addressing climate change and pollution. Proponents of the standards also highlighted that Virginia will begin receiving greater shipments of electric vehicles from manufacturers, and has millions in funding from the federal government to expand electric vehicle infrastructure.

“The bottom line is the Clean Car Standards are achievable,” Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told lawmakers in the House committee Wednesday. “They offer extensive health, economic and environmental benefits.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who voted to defeat the proposed repeal in the Senate committee Tuesday, told lawmakers the “transition” to zero-emission vehicles is “coming sooner than a lot of people thought two years ago.”

“We can either get ahead of [the transition] and prepare and take advantage of the infrastructure money that is coming to help build our infrastructure to support it and we can incentivize having more of these vehicles come to Virginia faster. Or we can put our heads in the sand and say ‘we're just gonna pretend that this isn't happening’,” McClellan said.

Democratic lawmakers also noted that the Clean Cars standard would not stop Virginians from driving gas-powered vehicles or purchasing used gas vehicles after 2035.

Republicans and Gov. Glenn Youngkin had identified repealing the 2021 law as a key priority during the 2023 legislative session despite the make-up of the politically-divided General Assembly. Deputy Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Jennifer Walle told the House committee Wednesday that “the administration believes a repeal of tying Virginia to standards and regulations in California or any state for that matter is the most appropriate path forward.”

“We believe what California may require for their citizens should not be a one-size-fits all solution for Virginia,” Walle said.

Opponents of adopting California’s regulations also voiced concern about adequate battery supply for sales of electric vehicles, while others questioned whether the state’s electric grid could handle a vast increase of electric vehicles.

Senator Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, the author of one of the repeal bills on the Senate side, voiced doubt that Virginia will be able to meet the 35% electric vehicle sales threshold by 2026. Newman also voiced concern about the financial consequences of failing to meet standards.

“We are planning to fail on this,” Newman said.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates are likely to debate the proposed repeal of the Clean Car standards on the chamber floor in the coming weeks.

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