State judge OKs 'clean cars' plan

A state judge has approved Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed “clean car” rules, giving a boost to the plan designed to increase the number of electric vehicles available to Minnesotans.
Stepanie Hemphill | MPR News 2009

A state judge has approved Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed “clean car” rules, giving a boost to the plan designed to increase the number of electric vehicles available to Minnesotans — and in the process, reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

In a 69-page report released Friday, Administrative Law Judge Jessica Palmer-Denig concluded that the proposed rulemaking from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is “needed and reasonable,” and that the agency has the authority to adopt the changes. 

If the MPCA ultimately moves forward with the proposal, Minnesota would become the 15th state to adopt the standards. They’re modeled after rules adopted by California, which has special authority from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to implement standards stricter than those required by the federal government. 

Walz first announced his clean cars plan in September 2019, one of his administration’s first key strategies to combat climate change and get the state back on track to meeting its greenhouse gas reduction goals. The MPCA also backs the plan for health reasons — the proposed rules would reduce tailpipe emissions of harmful air pollutants, especially in urban areas. 

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But it’s come under fire from Republicans at the state Capitol, who argue that the governor should have sought legislative approval for the controversial proposal. GOP leaders want to stop the rules, or at least force a delay in implementation as part of end-of-session budget negotiations. 

The proposed standards have two components. The first, called the low-emission vehicle — or LEV — rule, would gradually require conventional gas-powered cars and trucks sold in the state to be more fuel-efficient. 

The second, called the zero-emission vehicle — or ZEV — rule, would require manufacturers to make more cars and trucks that don’t emit any greenhouse gas emissions available for sale in Minnesota. These include battery electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. 

A Tesla electric car charges at a Tesla charging station
A Tesla electric car charges at a Tesla charging station at a highway rest stop in 2019, near Nempitz, Germany.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images file

Under the rule, the MPCA estimates that EVs would need to make up between 6 and 7 percent of vehicle sales in Minnesota between 2025 to 2034.

Environmental groups cheered the ruling. “It really validates Gov. Walz’s decision to put Minnesota back on track as a climate leader,” said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota.

The MPCA argues that many newer models of electric vehicles are not available for sale in Minnesota, because manufacturers are sending them to states that already have these rules in place. The agency says adopting the standards would result in more consumer choice and help grow the demand for EVs. 

Angela Smith, a farmer in southeastern Minnesota, provided comments during one of the two meetings the administrative law judge held on the proposal. She told the judge she’s seen the impacts of climate change first-hand on her farm through increased heavy rainfalls that have flooded her fields. 

She said her family has purchased EVs, but has been frustrated by the choices.

“Why should consumers in California and New York have more purchasing options than people in Minnesota?” she asked.

Some auto dealers in Minnesota have opposed the rule, arguing among other things that they will have to make substantial financial investments to sell EVs, but that the market isn’t strong enough to recoup those investments. 

Clint Lockwood, who owns Lockwood Motors in Marshall, Minn., told the judge he has sold the Chevy Volt and the Chevy Bolt, neither of which were profitable for the dealership. 

“We continue to hear from constituents from across the state that they absolutely do not support implementing California’s car standards in Minnesota and forcing auto dealers to stock vehicles that may not sell, which will drive up all vehicle prices,” State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said in a statement.

The MPCA points to testimony from people like Smith, saying the demand for EVs exists. The agency also says the rule does not require any dealer to carry electric vehicles.

“Minnesota’s clean car standards are another common-sense way we can support innovation and clean-technology jobs while fostering a better climate and giving consumers more choice,“ said agency spokesperson Darin Broton.

The agency has pushed back against misinformation about the proposal, including several “misperceptions” the administrative law judge cited in her report.

For example, the judge said many commenters worried the proposal would require them to purchase an electric vehicle. It does not. The proposal also does not apply to gas-powered grills, motorsports vehicles or farm equipment, concerns expressed during the hearings. 

Ultimately, the judge said it was her job to make sure the MPCA acted lawfully in pursuing its rulemaking, not to weigh in on whether the state Legislature was a more appropriate venue for changing air emissions rules for vehicles. 

“Under the plain language of these provisions, the MPCA has the statutory authority under Minnesota law to adopt the proposed LEV and ZEV emission standards,” wrote Palmer-Denig. 

During a hearing Friday between House and Senate negotiators trying to hash out an agreement on an environment and natural resources budget bill, Sen. Bill Ingebrigsten, R-Alexandria, said he didn’t think anyone ever questioned whether the rulemaking was legal. 

“It does not alter the power of the Legislature to adopt a state position on clean cars,” he said. 

Senate Republicans have proposed putting a two-year moratorium on adopting the clean cars emissions standards. 

The MPCA’s Broton said there already is a two-year delay built into the rule. The federal Clean Air Act requires two full model years between when the rules are finalized, and when they are enforced. 

The MPCA expects the standards would apply to vehicles beginning with model year 2025. The agency is also proposing an “early action credit” to encourage manufacturers to make more EVs available for sale sooner in Minnesota. 

The agency will now submit the rule to Walz for final review. The MPCA has 180 days from Friday to adopt it.