RICHMOND, Virginia — Democrats in the Virginia Senate on Tuesday rejected several Republican attempts to repeal a so-called “clean cars” bill that aims to reduce carbon pollution through the passage of California’s strict vehicle emissions rules.
The committee vote marked a critical moment in the GOP’s attempted repeal — one of the most high-profile environmental debates of this session. While similar measures are still expected to pass through the Republican-controlled House, they would eventually end up before the same Senate committee for a vote.
Environmental groups, who say the approval of the standards was one of the biggest steps Virginia has taken to tackle climate change, applauded Tuesday’s outcome.
“Today’s vote shows that (Governor Glenn) Youngkin-led attacks on Virginia’s fundamental climate laws are a dead end and that he should be on the side of promoting pollution and not opposing it,” said Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director. for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Republicans unsuccessfully tried last year to repeal the 2021 law, and Youngkin vowed to try again after California moved in August to require all new cars, pickups and SUVs to be electric or hydrogen by 2035. their existing gas-powered cars or buy used cars.
Opponents of following California’s lead say the targets are unattainable and the electric vehicles that will be needed — and their batteries — are too expensive for many families. Speakers also expressed concerns on Tuesday about whether the power grid can handle the extra demand.
Some Republican senators asked their colleagues to consider at least delaying implementation of the standards.
“I hope there is at least a way to change this. Do something so that reasonable judgment can guide the day here,” said Senator Richard Stuart.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources eventually rolled through several similar repeal bills before the Consolidated Group voted 8 to 7.
The “clean cars” law was initially passed two years ago, at a time when the state government was under full democratic control. The measure that then Gov. Ralph Northam’s signing into law was a top priority for environmentalists at the time. It requires that from 2024 a certain percentage of new passenger cars sold by manufacturers be electric or hybrid electric.
The mechanism for reaching the mandatory vehicle sales threshold – which would start at about 8% in 2024 and increase each year thereafter – involves adopting California vehicle emission standards. California has had the authority to set its own rules under an exemption from the federal Clean Air Act for decades.
The program applies to manufacturers, not car dealers. Manufacturers that do not meet the requirements can buy credits from others who have surpassed the target.
Proponents of the change argued that some automakers are prioritizing shipping their electric vehicles, or EVs, to states that use California standards. They said that means supply in Virginia is not meeting demand, especially outside the Washington suburbs.
The hope was that the law would make it easier and more likely that Virginians will choose cleaner cars and, in turn, help reduce pollution from the transportation industry, which is Virginia’s largest heat-trapping source of carbon dioxide, according to federal data.
Opponents argued when the Virginia law was passed that the Commonwealth should not tie its future to California.
In August, after California’s Air Resources Board further tightened its standards, state officials confirmed that the change would apply to Virginia. Youngkin vowed to push for repeal, saying he would work to “prevent this ridiculous edict from being forced on Virginians.”
“As the governor stated, Democrats in Virginia have outsourced energy policy decision-making to unelected bureaucrats in California,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement.
The governor has said he generally welcomes efforts to push for cleaner energy sources, but thinks the methods applied under previous years of Democratic scrutiny are too rigid.
A representative from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents most automakers, said at the committee’s hearing that it was neutral on the bill. But the representative, Josh Fisher, expressed concern that since 2021, Virginia has not enacted any policies to help reach the thresholds of the mandate.
“I’m here to advocate for consumer purchase discounts, improved electric vehicle charging infrastructure, updating your state’s building codes. These are all policies that you must adopt if you want to proceed with this policy,” Fisher said.