California’s newly announced ban on sales of fossil-fuel-burning cars and small trucks starting in 2035 has cleared the way for a similar ban in Massachusetts. That’s because of a provision in Massachusetts’s new climate change law, as well as a unique feature in federal law that lets California set environmental standards for other US states.
In late 2020, Governor Charlie Baker endorsed a ban on fossil-fuel vehicles by 2035, and language to that effect was included in the climate bill he signed earlier this month. But Massachusetts couldn’t enforce the requirement unless California went first.
It all goes back to an unusual feature of the Clean Air Act, which empowers the federal government to set environmental standards for cars and trucks. While automakers chafed at government regulation, they hoped that the new law would at least give them a single set of nationwide standards.
“The carmakers of course did not want 50 states setting up all different rules,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of Green Energy Consumers Alliance in Boston.
However, some states still wanted the right to impose even tougher anti-pollution rules. In the end, Congress came up with a compromise. California, the most populous US state, and one with severe air pollution problems, could apply to the federal government for permission to impose stricter standards. No other state is permitted to do this.
However, if a tougher California regulation is approved by the federal government, any other state can adopt the rule as well. Massachusetts, 16 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s environmental standards for automobiles.
Chretien said that carmakers could urge the US Environmental Protection Agency to reject the California and Massachusetts rules. But he predicted little opposition, noting that the industry is already spending billions on an aggressive transition to electric vehicles.
“Corporations would like to have more of a free hand,” Chretien said. “However, I believe that in the last three years they have figured out that an electric car is a better product than a gasoline car.”
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing the world’s biggest carmakers, didn’t express outright opposition to California’s move in a statement issued Thursday. But the group’s president, John Bozzella, called the 2035 timeline “very aggressive — even in California with decades of supportive EV policies” and added that meeting it “will be extremely challenging.”