State regulators push ahead with 'clean car' rules, despite GOP opposition

A new fast charger for electric vehicles at the U of M Morris.
A new fast charger for electric vehicles sits ready at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris on in 2018.
Courtesy of Esther Jordan of WCROC 2018

Minnesota environmental regulators are pushing forward with proposed “clean car” rules, despite strong opposition from many Republican legislators.

The state Pollution Control Agency’s proposed new standards have two primary goals: The first is to reduce Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions, to which transportation is now the largest contributor. The second goal is to increase electric vehicle options for Minnesota consumers.

Right now, the MPCA says, many electric vehicle models aren't available here. Manufacturers ship most of those cars to states that have adopted stricter emissions standards.

The Walz administration first pitched the plan — dubbed “Clean Cars Minnesota” — a year and a half ago. Under the proposal, the state would adopt two rules governing vehicle emissions and sales that California and about a dozen other states already have in place.

The first, called the low-emission vehicle — or LEV — rule, limits the amount of pollution that new cars and trucks are allowed to emit. It would gradually require conventional gas-powered cars and trucks sold in Minnesota to emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions, which would largely be accomplished by making them more fuel-efficient.

The federal government has had these requirements in place since 2012 — and all cars sold in Minnesota and nationwide already meet the standard.

But moving forward, there is some uncertainty about this rule. The Trump administration rolled back the standard last year, but the Biden administration is expected to reinstate stricter vehicle emission rules at the federal level.

The second rule — known as the ZEV, or zero-emission vehicle, standard — would require manufacturers to offer more zero-emission vehicles for sale in Minnesota. Between 6 and 8 percent of all vehicles sold in the state would have to be battery electric or plug-in hybrid models.

Legislators weigh in

Supporters of the proposal say it's only a small step toward what's really needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change. They see the standards as being fairly modest, but important regulations designed to move Minnesota more quickly toward an electric future.

"We're getting information from the world's scientists that we need to decarbonize seriously over the next 20 years, and clean cars is a chance for Minnesota to take a really small step to do its share,” said Nick Frentz, a DFL state senator from North Mankato, Minn.

But the proposal has gotten fierce pushback from many state Republicans. They argue that the MPCA is circumventing the state Legislature by proposing to set the rules itself.

"Decisions of this magnitude that, in my opinion, do go beyond what's prescribed in statute, belong in the legislative branch as a legislative decision, and not a rulemaking decision by a bureaucratic agency,” said Andrew Mathews, a GOP state senator from Princeton, Minn., who has introduced a bill to curb state regulators' ability to set stricter vehicle emission regulations.

The Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association is making a similar argument in a lawsuit it filed in federal court to block the standards.

Republicans in the state Legislature also don't like the idea that, if the rulemaking goes forward, Minnesota would be poised to adopt a policy designed by the state of California.

GOP state Sen. Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point says she's made it her mission to stop the proposal.

"Everyone that we talk to, when they find out about it, they can't believe we would give over legislative purview to California,” she said. “And that's what we would be doing. And once we adopt their air quality standards, they control us.”

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the MPCA has only two choices in regulating vehicle emissions: The state can continue to follow federal standards, as it does now — or it can adopt the standards California has put in place. Minnesota can't write its own rules. The agency points out that 13 states have followed California's lead. Together, they make up more than a third of new car sales in the country.

Minnesota is proposing to adopt California's rules as they're currently written. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed an executive order to phase out gas-powered vehicle sales in the state by 2035.

So if Minnesota were to adopt the California standard — and California were to make additions to its rules — MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said recently that Minnesota would have to then decide whether to follow suit, or to revert to the federal standards.

“[Just] because California changes theirs, does not mean we’d change ours,” she said.

MPCA battles misinformation

Meanwhile, Bishop said the agency has also been busy trying to combat misinformation circulating about the clean cars proposal:

  • Several people in public hearings have alleged that the proposal would apply to farm equipment, and even result in a higher cost of food for consumers. Some Republican legislators have made similar arguments in online videos and newspaper columns. But it’s not true. The proposal does not apply to off-road vehicles, farming equipment or heavy-duty trucks.

  • The rulemaking also doesn’t require anyone to purchase an electric vehicle. The proposal would instead require auto manufacturers to offer a certain number of the vehicles for sale in the state.

  • The proposal does not eliminate pickup trucks or SUVs from being sold in the state.

  • It also does not require emissions testing, or force anyone to get rid of a vehicle they already own.

  • The rules would not go into effect immediately. The Clean Air Act requires a two-year waiting period after a state implements them, so the new standards would apply to model year 2025 vehicles at the earliest.

The proposal could make some vehicles more expensive in the state, if car manufacturers begin to build two kinds of vehicles — one group for states that have adopted LEV, or low emission vehicle standards, and another for states that follow the federal standard. The MPCA estimates that could raise the cost of an average vehicle sold in Minnesota by about $1,100, although the agency also says customers would recoup that cost in fuel savings.

The Biden administration is widely expected to adopt a low-emission vehicle standard nationwide.

Still, some state legislators argue the state should wait to see how California and the federal government address vehicle emissions in the near future. Others say the market's already moving toward cleaner cars. Just last week GM pledged to go all-electric by 2035.

And just by offering more electric vehicles for sale in Minnesota doesn’t mean consumers will want them, which could leave car dealers stuck with expensive cars they can’t sell.

But Anjali Bains, with the environmental group Fresh Energy, said clean car standards are still an important tool to keep the momentum moving toward an electric future.

"Clean car standards are the backstop for the change that's happening. It makes sure that automakers follow through on their promises,” Bains said. “And then, quite frankly, it's making sure Minnesota doesn't get left behind in the transition."

Later this month a state administrative law judge will hold a two-day hearing on the proposed rule. The public has until March 15 to comment. Then there will be an opportunity to reply to other comments, before the judge decides whether the state can move forward with its clean cars plan.