Biden Administration Is Said to Slow Early Stage of Shift to Electric Cars


In a concession to automakers and labor unions, the Biden administration intends to relax elements of one of its most ambitious strategies to combat climate change, limits on tailpipe emissions that are designed to get Americans to switch from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles, according to three people familiar with the plan.

Instead of essentially requiring automakers to rapidly ramp up sales of electric vehicles over the next few years, the administration would give car manufacturers more time, with a sharp increase in sales not required until after 2030, these people said. They asked to remain anonymous because the regulation has not been finalized. The administration plans to publish the final rule by early spring.

The change comes as President Biden faces intense crosswinds as he runs for re-election while trying to confront climate change. He is aiming to cut carbon dioxide emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles, which make up the largest single source of greenhouse gases emitted by the United States.

At the same time, Mr. Biden needs cooperation from the auto industry and political support from the unionized auto workers who backed him in 2020 but now worry that an abrupt transition to electric vehicles would cost jobs. Meanwhile, consumer demand has not been what automakers hoped, with potential buyers put off by sticker prices and the relative scarcity of charging stations.

Sensing an opening, former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, has seized on electric cars, falsely warning the public that they “don’t work” and telling autoworkers that Mr. Biden’s policies are “lunacy” that he would extinguish on “the first day” of his return to the White House.

Last spring, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the toughest-ever limits on tailpipe emissions. The rules would be so strict, the only way car makers could comply would be to sell a tremendous number of zero-emissions vehicles in a relatively short time frame.

The E.P.A. designed the proposed regulations so that 67 percent of sales of new cars and light-duty trucks would be all-electric by 2032, up from 7.6 percent in 2023, a radical remaking of the American automobile market.

That remains the goal. But as they finalize the regulations, administration officials are tweaking the plan to slow the pace at which auto manufacturers would need to comply, so that electric vehicle sales would increase more gradually through 2030 but then would have to sharply rise.

The change in pacing is in response to automakers who say that more time is needed to build a national network of charging stations and to bring down the cost of electric vehicles, and to labor unions that want more time to try to unionize new electric car plants that are opening around the country, particularly in the South.

But delaying the most stringent requirements of the rule could come at a cost to the climate, after the hottest year in recorded history.

Postponing the sharp increase in electric vehicle sales until after 2030 would still eliminate roughly the same amount of auto emissions as the original proposal by 2055, according to E.P.A. models. But it would mean the nation would continue to pump auto emissions into the atmosphere in the short run. Scientists say every year counts in the government’s efforts to prevent the planet from tipping into more deadly and costly climate disasters.

“You’ll have faster warming if U.S. transportation emissions don’t decline before 2030,” said James Glynn, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Scientists have warned that if average global temperatures increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels, humans would struggle to adapt to increasingly violent storms, floods, fires, heat waves and other disruptions

The planet has already warmed by about 1.2 degrees Celsius.

Ali Zaidi, Mr. Biden’s senior climate adviser, declined to discuss the details of the final regulation. But he said in an interview that Mr. Biden’s climate policies, combined with record federal investment in renewable energy, would still help to reach the president’s goal of cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

“I feel very good about how our policies, including the regulatory actions, are fitting together to boost our ability to hit our 2030 targets and setting us up for the longer term trajectory,” Mr. Zaidi said.

Still, experts say it’s uncertain whether Mr. Biden can meet his twin goals of cutting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and eliminating them by 2050, a target that scientists say all nations must achieve to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Labor support has been a key part of Mr. Biden’s political coalition and his portrayal of himself as a fighter for the middle class.

That backing was threatened last spring, when the Environmental Protection Agency proposed the new limits on tailpipe emissions. Soon after, Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, wrote that the union was withholding its endorsement of Mr. Biden’s re-election bid over “concerns with the electric vehicle transition.”

The union has been wary of electric vehicles, since they require fewer workers to assemble and many electric vehicle plants are being built in states with few unions.

In public comments it filed regarding the proposed rule, the United Auto Workers pressed the Biden administration to relax the compliance timeline so that it “increases stringency more gradually, and occurs over a greater period of time.” Union leaders repeated that request in discussions with senior White House officials, including Mr. Zaidi, over the past six months. Biden administration officials said the union’s comments had “resonated.”

Last fall, when the union went on strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, in part over fears about the industry’s transition to electric vehicles, Mr. Biden sought to assuage their concerns and became the first president to stand with workers on the picket line.

By early January, the E.P.A. sent a revised version of its auto emissions rule with the longer time frame to the White House. Weeks later, the United Auto Workers endorsed Mr. Biden.

A spokesman for the union declined multiple requests to interview Mr. Fain.

After the endorsement, Mr. Trump called Mr. Fain a “dope” on Truth Social, his social media site. “He bought into Biden’s ‘vision’ of all Electric Vehicles, which require far fewer workers to make each car but, more important, are not wanted in large numbers by the consumer, and will ALL be made in China,” Mr. Trump wrote.

Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, noted the way Mr. Trump has focused on the anxiety over electric vehicles that pervades that auto-making state, one of a handful of swing states where the election is likely to be decided.

“Trump has been very effective previously at using wedge issues,” Mr. Rabe said. “Whenever he comes to the state, this comes up. And this is not abstract in Michigan, it’s a real question. ‘What plant am I going to be working in?’”

Although a record 1.2 million electric vehicles were sold in the United States last year, growth is slowing, even as the new regulations would require a nearly tenfold increase in such sales within just eight years.

While buyers of new electric vehicles are eligible for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits, only 18 models are currently eligible for that full credit, down from about two dozen last year. One of those eligible models, the Ford F-150 Lightning, an all-electric pickup truck that once had a waiting list of 200,000, last year saw sales of 24,000, far short of the 150,000 sales projected by Ford.

And while construction of E.V. chargers is expanding, nearly doubling from about 87,000 in 2019 to more than 172,000 last year, analysts project that the nation will need more than two million chargers by 2030 to support the growth in electric vehicles envisioned by the proposed rules.

All that worries auto companies, which have invested about $146 billion over the past three years in researching and developing electric vehicles, according to the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit organization in Ann Arbor, Mich. Auto companies would face billions of dollars per year in fines if the emissions associated with their auto sales exceed the limits set by the new regulations.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents 42 car companies that produce about 97 percent of the new vehicles sold in the United States, asked the administration for the same slowdown sought by the United Auto Workers.

“Pace matters,” said John Bozzella, president of the alliance, in an interview. “Give the market and supply chains a chance to catch up, maintain a customer’s ability to choose, let more public charging come online.”

Analysts say the current lag in electric vehicle sales is to be expected, as the market for early adopters — typically wealthier, coastal residents who have bought an E.V. as a second car — is saturated.

“It may be some time before the larger middle class, middle-of-the-country market is ready to embrace buying plug-in cars,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, the senior vice president of research at the Center for Automotive Research.

It could be easier to sell many more electric vehicles after 2030, Mr. Prasad said.

“There is new technology coming in, prices changing, consumer behavior changing,” he said. “If you’re running one of these businesses and you get some extra time, you would use every second. You can do things that allow you to better source components, test out new technologies, battery technology will get cheaper and allow people to drive longer distances, there is more investment in charging infrastructure, and in the minds of consumers you could start to see more acceptance of this.”

Some analysts said the trade-off, relaxing the rules to give auto companies and workers what they want, could be worth it if it helps Mr. Biden win the election, since Mr. Trump has made clear that if he wins, he plans to roll back the rules entirely.

David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California San Diego, said, “You have more emissions for a few years but you raise the odds that the rule will stick.”


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