Tucked into the state’s new $17 billion transportation plan is an ambitious goal: no new gas-powered cars by 2030. The pledge is just two sentences long in the 120-page document, but nonetheless represents the culmination of years of advocacy in the Legislative Assembly for what is now the most aggressive schedule in the country.
The goal of selling all-electric vehicles in eight years is just that: a goal. The new language isn’t a mandate, as advocates originally hoped in 2017. But Matthew Metz, executive director of environmental advocacy organization Coltura, which has helped drive vehicle sales to zero emissions, said winning the new language creates a standard by which public servants in government and the private sector must now be measured.
“These goals must be clear, public and constantly reaffirmed,” Metz said. “That’s how society organizes itself around a project.”
Washington State has already committed to following California’s vehicle emissions standards, which are stricter than those of the federal government; President Joe Biden recently reinstated a waiver allowing California to set its own standards that former President Donald Trump had revoked. California is finalizing rules that would require all new car sales to be electric by 2035, which Washington would then follow.
Although electric vehicle sales have increased in recent years, only 1.3% of cars on the road in Washington are battery-powered. And for many, the cost remains prohibitive.
But moving faster than the California timeline is a statement of the seriousness of climate change, said Leah Missik, policy manager at the nonprofit Climate Solutions.
“The intent with the 2030 goal is to say, ‘Hey, this is a crisis,'” Missik said.
Legislative Republicans, who say they have been left out of negotiations over the transportation package, are skeptical of the new goal, calling it cumbersome and unrealistic.
“They want to force everyone to get into an electric vehicle for whatever reason they think is appropriate,” said Republican Yakima Senator Curtis King, a senior member of the Senate Transportation Committee. “They want to take the choice away from the people because they think the government knows more than anyone else.”
But, King said, with Democrats in charge in Olympia, there was little he could do to get in their way.
“They wanted what they wanted,” he said.
Metz is a former litigator who, after a successful career in the legal world, began pushing full-time to end gas-guzzling as executive director of Coltura. “It starts with my kids,” he said. “I look at them and I’m like, ‘What kind of future will they have?'”
Metz first contacted Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri in 2018 to ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2030. Macri recalls meeting Metz for coffee and how he pulled out his laptop to show her a PowerPoint presentation he had made. As a lawmaker, Macri spent most of her time on housing issues, but she was “intrigued” by Metz’s presentation.
“It was just a very simple approach that everyone in Washington state could understand,” she said.
The original proposal was a mandate requiring all new cars to be electric. But Macri said all legal advice they had received, including from the state attorney general’s office, was that such a warrant would struggle in court. More than that, it could also threaten California’s emission standards if a federal judge issues a ruling with national implications. The mandate was changed to an objective.
When he entered the Legislative Assembly in 2019, Macri said he was seen as “super radical”. But the pace of change was rapid over the following years.
“The more you talk about an issue, the more people start thinking about it,” Macri said. “From 2019 to 2022, it was just amazing to see the evolution of conversation and engagement.”
In the 2021 session, the goal of the electric vehicle hit Governor Jay Inslee’s office. But he vetoed it because lawmakers tied its rollout to the introduction of a road user charge, which Inslee didn’t like.
This session, Democrats have incorporated the goal into their largest transportation package, which has toed party lines and was signed by Inslee last week.
The following is the most important part, Macri said, which is the plan for its implementation, scheduled for the end of the year and which will be developed by a newly created “electric vehicle interagency coordination council”. . This is where some of the most important details will be worked out, including how to make vehicles more affordable, increase supply and expand access to charging stations. The current market puts electric vehicles out of reach for many, Macri said, and the government’s role should be to fill those gaps.
Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, a senior member of the House Transportation Committee, said the goal was unrealistic and the barriers were too high. He said he feared the goal would turn into a mandate. The market should dictate the switch to electric vehicles, he said.
“There’s a lot more to it than having the cars available,” he said. “We have a long way to go for electricity supply and infrastructure and everything that goes with it.”
Senator King pointed to the current dominance of gas-powered vehicles in the state. Sales of electric vehicles have surged in recent years, but they represent just over 1% of all cars on the road in Washington, according to the Department of Licensing. Washington ranks fourth overall in new electric vehicle registrations.
“With incentives and trying to get people to buy these vehicles, you always have that kind of percentage of people who are willing to do that,” he said.
But Coltura’s Metz said over the next eight years the cost and availability of electric cars will decline. BloombergNEF predicts that the price of producing electric vehicles will be cheaper than gas-powered cars by 2027. General Motors said it will phase out gas-powered cars by 2035. “A lot of people think cars electric ones, because they have so many fewer parts, will be cheaper than gas-powered cars,” he said.
Climate Solutions’ Missik said more government incentives and coordination to build infrastructure can help accelerate the transition in ways the market alone could not. “The more makes and models come to market, there is more competition,” she said. “These are all good things, but it’s definitely not enough.”
For Metz, the ultimate goal is to inspire other states to take action and build momentum, the same way same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization have.
“I wouldn’t bet against it,” he said. “At some point, car manufacturers will say: let’s unite around the standard. The climate crisis is getting worse.”
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