California is demanding that half of all heavy-duty trucks sold be electric by 2035

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Friday plans to grant California the legal authority to require that half of all garbage trucks, tractor-trailers, cement mixers and other heavy vehicles sold in the state be all-electric by 2035, a aggressive plan designed to clean up the worst polluters on the road.

According to people familiar with the decision, the pioneering truck rule will go beyond federal requirements, which is why the state needed administrative approval to enforce it. It comes on the heels of an ambitious scheme adopted last year by California requiring all new passenger cars sold in the state to be electric by the same target year, 2035.

Together, the two moves would propel California to the forefront of the race to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from transportation, the sector of the U.S. economy that generates the most greenhouse gases.

As the fifth largest economy in the world, the state of California has tremendous market power; the new rules could force changes across the auto industry and encourage other states to follow suit. In fact, six other states have already passed trucking rules modeled on California’s new requirement, but were awaiting federal action to enforce them.

But some say the mandate that half of all heavy-duty trucks sold be electric by 2035 is so ambitious that it’s nearly impossible, as less than 2 percent of heavy-duty trucks sold in the United States last year were all-electric. used to be.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s legal exemption allows California to anticipate new federal standards for climate-warming truck pollution, which the Biden administration hopes to unveil later this year. In December, the EPA announced a new federal rule to reduce nitrogen oxides from heavy-duty vehicles, the first time in 20 years it had tightened truck tailpipe emissions.

“This is a moment to mark because it is a preview of the order of magnitude of change in the industry,” Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, said in an interview. “There is a power in these waivers and that power is emulation. Through these waivers, we are adopting the principles and policies that drive innovation and investment.”

California has a history of being at the forefront of environmental policy, setting the pace often followed by the federal government. The States bold new standards for passenger cars help shape a federal proposal for state auto pollution rules, which could be unveiled as early as mid-April.

The electric truck mandate was approved by the California Air Resources Board in 2020, but required a waiver from the EPA because it is stricter than federal standards.

When it comes into effect next year, the rule will cover the sale of trucks ranging in size from vans to large oil rigs. By 2035, 55 percent of vans and small trucks, 75 percent of buses and larger trucks, and 40 percent of tractor-trailers and other large platforms sold in the state should be all-electric.

Electric truck prices start at around $100,000 and can reach the upper six figures. Buyers, including supply and construction companies, could get some help from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, which offers up to $40,000 in tax credits to buyers of all-electric trucks for the next decade.

But a fierce legal battle is already underway to undermine the rules in the courts. Republican attorneys general from 17 states are challenging California’s ability to set state pollution standards that are stricter than federal standards. That case, Ohio vs. EPA, will be heard in May by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Regardless of the decision in that case, an appeal is expected to be filed with the Supreme Court.

Requiring manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of electric vehicles goes a step beyond regulating tailpipe pollution, said Steven G. Bradbury, who served as chief legal counsel to the Department of Transportation during the Trump administration.

“If California can through regulation force the automakers and truck makers to change the types of vehicles they produce, that will effectively put those restrictions on the rest of the country,” said Mr. Bradbury. “And you don’t yet have a business case that’s been proven in the market that you can actually operate battery-powered heavy trucks and make them viable.”

Truckers said the costs and difficulties of complying with the new regulations would be overwhelming.

“Many of the California trucking rules recently passed and enacted are beginning to push truckers out of the state,” said Jay Grimes, director of federal affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents truckers. “Drivers no longer want to work in California. They are skeptical about the fast timeline of this transition to electric trucks. Can a trucker get a load that will last him two or three days on the highway? Is the technology ready for prime time?”

Electric truck batteries can weigh thousands of kilograms more than conventional internal combustion engines, which would limit the amount of goods truck drivers can carry, Mr Grimes said. Others questioned whether electric truck charging stations would be built soon enough to support large oil rigs on long-haul journeys.

Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research organization, said some of those concerns were valid.

“There is a big challenge with the electrification of heavy vehicles,” he said. “But there are elements that lead to optimism.”

For instance, he said, for transportation, construction or delivery companies that operate truck fleets, the combination of government tax breaks and gasoline maintenance savings could add up significantly over time.

“Companies like FedEx look at the bottom line over the total life of a vehicle,” said Mr. Kodjak. “And when they look long-term, the calculations for this become more optimistic.”