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The escalating political battle over California's plan for gas-free cars

The fate of California's aggressive moves to wring carbon emissions out of transportation could depend heavily on the election and the shape of the Supreme Court.

Why it matters: California is the country's largest auto market and transportation is the country's largest source of CO2.


  • Gov. Gavin Newsom told state regulators Wednesday to craft rules that curb sales of new gasoline-powered passenger vehicles over time, reaching a phaseout in 2035.
  • He also ordered tougher rules to greatly boost sales and use of zer0-emissions trucks and buses over the next 25 years.
  • The Trump administration came out swinging against the plan, calling it anti-consumer.

The state of play: The plan, if it survives, would join the list of the world's most ambitious moves to curb vehicle emissions by favoring electric and hydrogen-powered models.

  • In 2019, fully electric and plug-in hybrid models were well under 10% of California's passenger car sales, per multiple reports.

The intrigue: The plan's fate is bound up in the ongoing battle between California and the White House.

  • The Trump administration is seeking to curtail the state's leeway to set its own tailpipe rules (which a number of other states may adopt).
  • Its decision last year to revoke California's special Clean Air Act waiver is the subject of continuing litigation.

What we're watching: The election and the fight to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

  • If Trump's upcoming nominee is confirmed, it would give conservative justices a powerful 6-3 majority on the high court.
  • Rapidan Energy Group, in a new note, said that split and a second Trump term would greatly imperil Newsom's plan.
  • "[T]he 6-3 conservative-led Supreme Court is more likely to uphold the Trump administration’s termination of CA’s waiver, eliminating its ability to enforce its [zero emissions vehicle] program," it said.

Yes, but: Per Rapidan, if Biden wins he will "reinstate the CA waiver and take it off the Supreme Court’s docket before it gets there."

  • "With the waiver secure, we would expect other states that have locked their ZEV targets to CA’s to set similar 100%-by-2035 mandates," Rapidan notes.

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