WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday unveiled a far-reaching, multipronged plan to make US cars and light trucks more fuel-efficient and to begin a shift to electric vehicles over the coming decade. The move marks one of the administration’s most consequential pushes so far to combat climate change and tackle the nation’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The suite of new goals and mandates, forged after months of talks with car manufacturers, autoworkers, and environmental groups, is meant to transform the kind of vehicles Americans drive and to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The move comes with political risks for Biden, who has faced pressure from activists and industry representatives alike. But it represents a key part of his promise to try to slow rising global temperatures and propel the country toward a future in which the vehicles on roads and highways rely on little or no gasoline.
‘’Today, labor and industry, state and local leaders, are all working together to write the next chapter in the American story,’’ Biden said on the White House’s South Lawn. ‘’We’re in competition with China and many other nations for the 21st century. To win, we’re going to have to make sure that the future will be made in America.’’
But it remains to be seen whether Biden’s call to action will be enough to get the American auto industry to shift gears to cleaner cars quickly enough as part of a broader effort to tackle global warming.
The president signed an executive order calling for half of new passenger car sales to be of electric vehicles powered by batteries and fuel cells or plug-in electric hybrids by the end of the decade. Executives from auto companies, including Ford and General Motors, as well as lawmakers and United Auto Workers members joined Biden at the White House on Thursday afternoon.
Biden, a self-described ‘’car guy,’’ turned to GM chief executive Mary Barra during his remarks and quipped: ‘’When they make the first electric Corvette, I get to drive it.’’
In the near term, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department were also set Thursday to propose new requirements on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency for cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks through model year 2026.
That rulemaking represents the Biden administration’s first major effort to use the federal government’s regulatory authority to cut carbon emissions. It also is a repudiation of a freeze on fuel-efficiency standards imposed under Donald Trump, one of the former president’s biggest environmental rollbacks. Trump scaled back the requirements put in place under the Obama administration in 2012, which would have ramped up average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025.
The Biden administration expects its actions to conserve about 200 billion gallons of gasoline and forestall around 2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution.
Looking further out, the Biden team is also kicking off its push to set longer-term pollution standards for everything from tiny sedans to huge semitrailers made in the second half of the decade.
Taken together, the administration’s effort to spur the sale of electric vehicles aims to slash emissions from the nation’s top driver of global warming: the transportation sector, in which more than 90 percent of the fuel used today is derived from petroleum.
Yet to get Americans into cleaner cars, the administration faces a bumpy road ahead.
‘’What we need to be doing is figuring out how to get really dramatic reductions [in emissions] going forward,’’ said Mary Nichols, the former chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board who helped forge a deal with five major automakers in 2019 to tighten their mileage standards beyond what the Trump administration set.
But it is difficult to make up for lost ground in improving engines after the Trump administration eased regulations. Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that although he had not yet seen the administration’s final proposal, his group and others have been pressuring the White House to push beyond the parameters of the California deal.
‘’They are not really forcing the industry to do a full course correction after the Trump [rollback],’’ Cooke said. ‘’It puts us far behind where we need to be.’’
And it’s still unclear whether the Biden administration will do enough to put the country on the path to reach its goal under the Paris climate agreement. The president wants to cut US emissions in half by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. With his executive order Thursday, Biden hopes to send a signal to other countries to set their own aggressive climate goals ahead of a major climate conference in Scotland in the fall.
In Detroit and other industrial cities, electric vehicles represent a challenge to autoworkers as factories shift from making internal combustion engines to battery-powered ones. A concern among factory workers is that their employers may be able to get by with fewer workers on the assembly line since electric vehicles have fewer parts. Both Ford and GM are investing in battery factories in the United States.
Meanwhile, the nation’s Big Three automakers — Ford, GM, and Stellantis, formerly Fiat Chrysler — rallied around a ‘’shared aspiration’' less ambitious than the Biden goal. They are proposing that 40 to 50 percent of their annual US sales be battery electric, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2030. Ford chief executive Jim Farley said that based on early demand for electric F-150 trucks and other vehicles, his company is ‘’well positioned’' to meet that mark.