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Walz proposes 'clean car' rules as Trump fights California in court

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Gov. Tim Walz announces a proposal for clean cars in Minnesota.
Gov. Tim Walz announces a proposal to join California and 13 other states in offering more low- and zero-emission vehicles for sale in Minnesota on Wednesday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday announced new action aimed at reducing tailpipe emissions in the state, which he says could benefit public health while also addressing climate change. 

Walz said Minnesota could become the first state in the Midwest to adopt California's standards for low- and zero-emission vehicles, which 13 other states have already adopted. 

Under those new “clean car” standards, auto manufacturers would be required to offer low-emission vehicles for sale in the state, including a variety of electric or hybrid cars, or some gas-powered vehicles that are designed to use less fuel, such as an SUV with a smaller engine. 

"What this will basically do is have those manufacturers putting more opportunities in front of Minnesotans,” Walz said.

Only about a third of these “clean car” options are available to Minnesotans today, he said. The new standards, which are expected to take between 18 and 20 months to implement, would boost public health and bring down overall emissions because many customers would choose more efficient options, Walz said.

But Walz also pointed out the rules won't affect people's existing cars or their ability to buy one that doesn't meet the standards. 

"The things that I certainly say, you know, ‘I want to take my F-150 with my ice house to the lake.’ Then go do it. You're fine,” he said. 

“I think the one thing is that we want to make sure there's some ice around at times of the year so you can actually take that ice house out there, so this is a bigger issue of Minnesotans wanting to protect what they have and they can play a role in it."

But the proposed vehicle standards for Minnesota face a roadblock. That's because the Trump administration has moved to strip away states' ability to enact clean car standards. Minnesota and 20 other states have challenged that action in court. 

Julia Stein, an attorney who specializes in environment and climate change law at the UCLA School of Law, said the Trump administration is arguing that the California clean car standards should be found invalid and not enforceable. 

"That would suggest that they're going to take the position that anyone who then piggybacked off those regulations doesn't have the right to be using them,” she said Wednesday during an online seminar about the legal issues surrounding the standards.

Stein said the courts could prevent the administration from doing that, and it's possible the dispute could eventually end up before the Supreme Court. 

Meanwhile, Minnesota car dealers say they're concerned about the new proposed rule. 

“Our dealers support efforts to promote cleaner vehicles. Following the lead of the state with the worst air quality in the county is not the way to go,” Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association, said in a written statement. 

Lambert said Minnesota’s No. 1-selling vehicle is the Chevy Silverado, a pickup truck. In contrast, California’s top-selling vehicle is the Honda Civic. He said adopting the standards will likely limit consumer choice by removing trucks, minivans and SUVs off showroom floors to make way for the required low-emission options.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will begin the rulemaking process next month. The goal is for the final rule to be in place at the end of 2020. Walz said the plan does not need approval from the Legislature.

But even if challenges prevent Minnesota from following California's path to a “clean car” standard, state officials are working to reduce transportation emissions in other ways. Transportation is one of the top three sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota; the other two are electricity generation and agriculture. 

A recent report by the Minnesota Department of Transportation found investing in electric buses, providing consumer incentives for electric vehicles and building out electric vehicle infrastructure could also help reduce emissions.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.