Tucked into the state’s new $17 billion transportation plan is a lofty goal: No new gas-powered cars by 2030. The commitment is just two sentences within the 120-page document, but nevertheless represents the culmination of years of advocacy in the Legislature for what is now the most aggressive timeline in the country.
The goal of selling exclusively electric vehicles in eight years is just that: a goal. The new language is not a mandate, as advocates had initially hoped for in 2017. But Matthew Metz, executive director of the environmental advocacy organization Coltura, who’s helped lead the push for more zero-emission vehicle sales, said that winning the new language creates a standard by which officials in government and the private sector must now by measured.
“These goals have to be clear, public and constantly reaffirmed,” said Metz. “That’s how society organizes itself around a project.”
Washington state already has committed itself to following California’s vehicle emissions standards, which are more stringent than the federal government’s; President Joe Biden recently reinstated a waiver allowing California to set its own standards that former President Donald Trump had revoked. California is in the process of finalizing rules that would mandate all new car sales be electric by 2035, which Washington would then follow.
Though sales of electric vehicles have grown in recent years, just 1.3% of cars on the road in Washington run on battery power. And for many, the cost remains prohibitive.
But moving faster than California’s timeline is a statement of how dire climate change is, said Leah Missik, policy manager at the nonprofit Climate Solutions.
“The intent with the 2030 goal is to say, ‘hey this is a crisis,’” said Missik.
Republicans in the Legislature, who say they were cut out of negotiations over the transportation package, are skeptical of the new goal, calling it heavy-handed and unrealistic.
“They want to force everybody into an electric vehicle for whatever reason they deem fit,” said Yakima Republican Sen. Curtis King, the ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee. “They want to take the choice away from the people because they think government knows more than anybody else.”
But, said King, with Democrats in control in Olympia, there wasn’t much he could do to get in their way.
“They wanted what they wanted,” he said.
Metz is a former trial lawyer who, after a successful run in the legal world, began pushing full time to end consumption of gasoline as executive director of Coltura. “It starts with my children,” he said. “I look at them and think, ‘what kind of future will they have?’”
Metz first approached Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri in 2018 about banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2030. Macri recalled meeting Metz for coffee and how he pulled out his laptop to show her a PowerPoint presentation he’d made. As a legislator, Macri spent most of her time on housing issues, but she was “intrigued” by Metz’s presentation.
“This was just a really simple approach that everyone in Washington state could understand,” she said.
The original proposal was a mandate requiring all new cars be electric. But Macri said all the legal advice they received, including from the state Attorney General’s Office, was that such a mandate would struggle in court. More than that, it could threaten California’s emission standards as well if a federal judge made a ruling with national implications. The mandate was changed to a goal.
When it first made its way into the Legislature in 2019, Macri said it was perceived as being “super radical.” But the pace of change was rapid in subsequent years.
“The more you talk about an issue, the more people start thinking about it,” said Macri. “From 2019 to 2022 it was just amazing to see the evolution of the conversation and engagement.”
In the 2021 session, the electric vehicle goal made it all the way to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. But he vetoed it because legislators tied its rollout to the implementation of a road usage fee, which Inslee didn’t like.
This session, Democrats folded the goal into their larger transportation package, which passed along party lines and was signed by Inslee last week.
What follows is the most important part, said Macri, which is the plan for its implementation, due at the end of the year and to be drawn up by a newly created “interagency electric vehicle coordinating council.” It’s there that 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, said Macri, and government’s role should be to close those gaps.
Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, the ranking member of the House Transportation Committee, said the goal is unrealistic and the barriers are too high. He said he’s concerned the goal will morph into a mandate. The market should dictate the switch to electric vehicles, he said.
“There’s a lot more to it than just having the cars available,” he said. “We’ve got a long way to go for power supply and infrastructure and everything that goes along with it.”
Sen. King pointed to the current dominance of gas-powered vehicles in the state. Electric vehicle sales have jumped in recent years, but they’re only just over 1% of all cars on the road in Washington, according to the Department of Licensing. Washington ranks fourth overall in new registrations of electric vehicles.
“With incentives and trying to entice people to buy these vehicles, you still have that kind of a percentage of people that are willing to do it,” he said.
But Metz of Coltura said that, over the next eight years, the cost and availability of electric cars will come down. BloombergNEF forecast that the price to produce electric vehicles will be cheaper than fuel-powered cars by 2027. General Motors said it would phase out petroleum-powered cars by 2035. “A lot of people think that electric cars, because they have so many fewer parts, are going to be cheaper than gas cars,” he said.
Missik of Climate Solutions said more government incentives and coordination to build out infrastructure can help to speed the transition in a way the market alone could not. “More makes and models are coming on the market, there’s more competition,” she said. “Those are all good things but it’s definitely not enough.”
For Metz, the ultimate objective is to inspire other states to take action and build momentum, in the same way that same sex marriage and marijuana legalization did.
“I wouldn’t bet against it,” he said. “At a certain point, automakers are going to say let’s unify around the standard. The climate crisis is getting worse.”
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