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A Pickup Truck State Debates California’s Electric Vehicle Rule

A Nissan Leaf charges at a recharge station while parked by the Denver City/County Building in downtown Denver.

A Nissan Leaf charges at a recharge station while parked by the Denver City/County Building in downtown Denver. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

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Colorado could move forward soon with requirements that a certain percentage of vehicle sales be electric. Officials this week inked a voluntary agreement with manufacturers that moves the state closer to that goal.

Even as California wages war with the Trump administration over automobile carbon emissions and fuel efficiency standards, Colorado is quietly on track to become the first state in the middle of the nation to adopt California’s mandate requiring more electric vehicle sales.

Late last year, Colorado became the 15th state adhering to a stricter low-emission vehicle (LEV) standard first adopted by California decades ago. Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, fearing EPA rollbacks, signed an executive order requiring the state to move forward. Current Gov. Jared Polis took it a step further this year, directing a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) rulemaking requiring electric vehicles to account for 5% of new sales in the state by 2023.

On Monday, the state moved closer to getting more electric cars on the roads, agreeing to a voluntary plan with automakers that is expected to result in more models for sale in Colorado. Still, state regulators are expected to move forward next month with hearings on the ZEV mandates.   

Colorado would be the 11th ZEV state and the first in the Rocky Mountain West, where the only other LEV state is New Mexico. The last state in the Southwest to adopt the California LEV standard was Arizona in 2008, but it was repealed when Gov. Jan Brewer took office in 2012.

California and a coalition of states are suing the Trump administration over its bid to roll back Obama administration fleetwide goals of nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025 and maintain levels closer to 37 mpg. On Thursday, Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen struck a deal with California for a slowed pace of around 50 mpg by 2026, rebuffing Trump’s EPA and recognizing California’s federal Clean Air Act waiver to set its own tougher standards.

“Auto companies are increasingly understanding that governments are adopting climate targets that are going to require a shift away from fossil fuels for transportation—a hundred percent shift—and that's going to happen whether they want it to or not,” said Travis Madsen of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. “It’s now just a matter of how and when.”

But opponents of a Colorado ZEV standard say the state should wait to see what happens with the California lawsuit and the EPA move to strip that state’s waiver.

“The EPA is looking at changing some of the rules that would do away with California's waiver,” said Kelly Sloan of the Freedom to Drive Coalition, an advocacy group comprised of state auto dealers and oil industry groups. “If that happened, then [Colorado] loses the authority to attach us onto a waiver that’s no longer going to exist.”

However, some analysts say last week’s deal between California and the four automakers, which could be joined soon by other manufacturers, represents a calculated gamble that the Trump administration will lose in court. An EPA spokesman called the deal “a PR stunt.”

In Colorado, automakers this summer pushed a voluntary plan to offer all 48 electric-vehicle models currently sold in California to Colorado buyers by 2020. Some analysts say fewer than 20 EV models are currently sold in Colorado, while automakers say it’s closer to 30.

That plan seemed dead in June, but was revived this week. Two national associations representing automakers—the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers—and the state on Monday agreed to a credit-banking system that could pave the way to Colorado becoming a ZEV state. The proposal still needs to be approved by the state Air Quality Control Commission, which also will hold the ZEV hearings.

“The result of having the two major associations of automobile manufacturers supporting our resulting joint alternative regulatory proposal is unprecedented and a testament to the success of our careful analysis and collaboration,” Colorado Energy Office Director Will Toor told Denver media in a statement.

Toor told the Colorado Sun that the agreement means more electric cars will be available for sale sooner in the state.

Proponents of the ZEV mandate say along with increasing the number of EVs on the roads, it will help policymakers and electric utilities reach their goals of generating 100 percent of the state's power from renewable resources by 2040 and being 100 percent carbon-free by 2050.

But Sloan’s group, which has party status for next month’s hearings, wants the state to not only hold off until the California situation is resolved, but also take a harder look at the economics of a ZEV standard, which he contends will drive up vehicle prices and electricity rates and have the greatest negative financial impact on low-income people, the elderly and rural residents.

“We just don't know what's going to happen with any of that, so we thought it makes a great deal of sense to hold off until we have some kind of resolution to some of these issues,” Sloan said. “Plus, let’s have a look and do a thorough economic analysis, which we contend hasn't been done yet.”

Shawn Martini, vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, also wants the state to tap the brakes on ZEV, arguing rural Colorado relies heavily on pickup trucks that simply aren’t available as electric vehicles yet. An estimated 70% of the vehicles sold in Colorado are in the light-duty category, including pickups and sport utility vehicles.

“Generally, we like to see policies that that are carrot and stick,” Martini said. “We see this really as nothing but stick. The big thing is this creates a policy that will essentially shift the costs to rural areas because we have no real ability to comply with the mandate.”

Martini contends rural auto dealers will be forced to carry EV sedans that rural customers don’t need and won’t buy so the dealers will pass the costs on to gas-powered pickups that aren’t yet available as EV’s. He also says the state’s wide-open spaces make electric vehicles impractical, as charging stations won’t necessarily be around every corner.

“Essentially, we drive distances and we use the types of vehicles that prevent us from taking advantage and trying to comply with this regulation by buying zero and low emission vehicles,” Martini said, adding it’s really a rulemaking that benefits the state’s major urban areas.

Madsen counters that EV pickups and SUV’s are coming quickly, pointing to Ford’s recent announcement of an all-electric F-150 pickup with incredible towing power.

“The ZEV program's not going to require anyone in particular to buy an electric vehicle,” Madsen said of the state’s rural markets. “The requirement is on the auto manufacturers and dealers to put electric vehicles in Colorado and to sell a certain number of them and, yeah, a lot of those sales might be in the metro area because that's where a lot of the people are.”

Manufacturers will scramble to give the Colorado market what it wants, he adds.

“To the extent we start seeing new trucks or like the electric Ford F-150, that’ll be more attractive across all corners of the state, and we're going to see more rural folks being interested in buying them and then the utilities that serve those customers, they’ll have a strong interest in providing the charging infrastructure necessary for those vehicles to run,” Madsen said.

Martini doesn’t disagree that electric pickups, including models in the early stages of development and production from a company called Rivian, could be a gamechanger. He just feels the technology isn’t quite there yet, so the Colorado ZEV mandate is premature.

“It would be really cool and it makes sense because electric vehicles have got an endless amount of torque in terms of hauling; it could have interesting applications for our folks on the farm and ranch side,” Martini said. “If they figure out how to put battery power into those size vehicles, then large [SUV’s and pickups] would be something they could make work, but it’s not quite there yet.”

David O. Williams is a journalist based in EagleVail, Colorado.

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