If your car burns gasoline, or your truck burns diesel, our state government wants make sure you will never to buy another one like it. It is not ready to do this yet, but it has declared its intentions. The mind of the state has been thinking of the ways it can cajole, bribe, and manipulate you to scrap your petroleum-powered vehicle and buy a plug-in electric. It’s hard to see how this will work.
One state policy to promote EVs is already in effect. The state requires oil refiners to bid at auction for the right to emit carbon dioxide. By doing this, it has squeezed the refiners for more than $1 billion. As a direct result, Washington now has the second-highest gasoline prices in the lower 48 states after California, which has a similar regime. In October, the average price of regular gas in Washington, according to the AAA, was $4.70 a gallon. In Montana, by contrast, it was $3.76.
You’re paying an extra dollar a gallon right now. And that’s just a start. Our Democratic-dominated government is following California, whose Democratic government has mandated that, by 2035, all sales of new cars will be plug-in electrics. Olympia has one-upped Sacramento and set our goal at 2030 — six years from now.
The Washington Department of Commerce has put out a Draft Transportation Electrification Strategy that outlines how to do this. You can read the report here.
The report was put together by a private consulting team. You might think that such a team would include people from the auto industry, the electric-utility industry, the financial industry, the trucking industry (because the Strategy includes medium and heavy trucks), such local companies as the truck builder PACCAR, as well as colleges of engineering and technology.
Our state has chosen a different team. It begins with Denver-based RMI (“our mission is to transform the global energy system to secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all”), and adds three Seattle organizations: Cascadia Consulting Group (“a certified small, woman-owned consulting firm working to foster sustainability”), Northwest Energy Coalition (mainly environmental groups) and Front and Centered (“We seek a just transition away from an extraction-based economy to one centered on ecological restoration, community resilience, and social equity, fueled by regenerative resources and cooperative work, governed by deep democracy, and a culture of caring and sacredness.”)
The report written by these consultants covers everything from cars to heavy trucks. Start with “light-duty vehicles” (cars and pickups). In Washington, electrics and plug-in hybrids currently amount to 2 percent of light-duty vehicles on the road. The electrics’ share of new vehicles is higher: 16 percent in the first five months of 2023. That’s an impressive trend, but still only one-sixth of total sales.
With today’s policies, including the intentionally high gasoline prices, the consultants estimate that EVs will have half the new-car-and-pickup market by 2030. That would be impressive — but the state aims for 100 percent. Its assignment to the consultants was, in effect, “Tell us how to get there.”
Already, EV buyers get a $7,500 federal subsidy. The most common buyers are families with two or more cars who buy an EV for tooling around town — in other words, the well-off. The consultants estimate that to push the EV share of new-vehicle sales in 2030 closer to 100 percent, it would have to pay an additional $6,000 to $9,000 to buyers of sedans and $11,000 to $13,000 to buyers of SUVs and pickups.
And that subsidy wouldn’t do it all. “For the small tail of last adopters,” the consultants admit, “there really is no price that would make them want an EV if a gasoline or diesel alternative still exists.” Even if EVs were given away free, the consultants say, some Washington residents would not accept them.
The other problem is that the state won’t have the money to offer $6,000 to $13,000 to every new-vehicle buyer. The consultants say subsidies must be “well-targeted to have maximum impact for minimum public cost.” (In other words, not every buyer will get the state’s money.) The consultants want low-income people — people receiving LIHEAP, TANF, SNAP benefits — to benefit most, but low-income people don’t buy new cars. The “targeted” subsidies would likely go to people almost able to buy an EV. Again, that would mean that lower-income people would be paying in taxes for grants enjoyed by people above them.
Another problem is that most low-to-medium-income Americans buy used cars. Last year, used cars made up 81 percent of title changes in Washington. A goal of 100 percent EVs in the new-car market implies a flooding of the used-car market with internal-combustion-engine cars. Once again, the kind of car you drive will become a marker of your social class even more than it does now.
Subsidies won’t be limited to the vehicle. The state wants to promote home chargers — typically 240 volts. To fill an EV battery to 80 percent of capacity on a 240-volt circuit takes 4-10 hours. Some owners may buy a direct-current fast charger, which could reduce their wait time to 20-60 minutes, but one of those typically costs more than the car. The state’s consultants say its all-EV goal will require subsidies for chargers. Once again, these would partly be paid for by the hoi polloi with internal-combustion engines.
The state also wants to push the adoption of EV trucks. It’s plan isn’t as aggressive as the one for cars, but it’s visionary nonetheless. “There is no zero-emission truck market in Washington,” says the Washington Trucking Association. “Despite its good intentions, the government cannot mandate products and markets into existence on the scale proposed here. This heavy-handed approach ignores market realities and limitations and assumes that there will be sufficient zero-emission trucks for companies to purchase on a scale that is currently impossible and further assumes that the trucks will meet the needs of the industry. Put bluntly, wishful thinking is not a strategy.”
The state’s report has some other questionable assumptions. For instance, there is an implied assumption that EVs are a zero-emission technology. They do have zero emissions at the tailpipe — and the consultants are careful to say it in those words. Zero emissions at the tailpipe is a good thing, particularly where the EVs operate. But the overall environmental cost of using an EV, which are what matter for the planet, depend on where the electricity comes from. In Washington, EVs mostly run on zero-emission power from dams, which is the kind of electric power we have. And that’s another good thing.
But an all-EV car and pickup market by 2030 implies a huge increase in the local use of electric power. We don’t have the power plants to do that. Our utilities will have to buy the power on the market. Whether it’s “clean” power will depend on who they buy it from. It a safe bet, though, that it will be expensive power, because our utilities won’t be the only ones bidding for it.
The lifetime emissions of an EV also depend on what the vehicle is made of. Ordinary cars are mostly made of steel, which creates some emissions. But making steel is relatively simple compared with the mining and refining of copper, aluminum, nickel, lithium, manganese, and rare earths such as neodymium. An EV battery typically costs at least $10,000, mostly because of the exotic ingredients. Mining and refining the ingredients requires more labor, and more electric power, than making steel.
Further, the labor and electricity won’t be American. Most of the world’s rare earths come from China, which is also the largest producer of aluminum. Making aluminum requires more electric power than making steel. China gets two-thirds of its electric power from coal. When you buy an electric car in Seattle, you may be paying for coal burned on the other side of the Pacific.
The world’s biggest producer of nickel is Indonesia; of copper, Chile; of manganese, South Africa; of lithium, Australia, followed by China. A huge increase in EV production worldwide will require an expansion of open-pit mining, and also of smelting. We wouldn’t allow that here, but if the world transitions to EVs, the increase in mining will happen somewhere else. And to do that, minerals prices will have to go up, which implies that batteries will cost more.
The consultants’ report does mention the materials problem. It doesn’t have much to say about it, because there is not much the state of Washington can do about it. It’s a problem that might be solved in the future and might not. We don’t know.
Now for the most fundamental question: Does any of this matter? The consultants’ report leaves unsaid whether the state’s EV policy will matter for the global climate. It does say that to meet the state’s carbon-dioxide goals, mandating EVs will not be enough. Local government will have to do many other things. It says the state should build more bike lanes and subsidize electric scooters. It says the state should penalize driving by imposing road tolls and “parking policies” — i.e., getting rid of free parking. It suggests that the state spend less on roads, which implies building no more of them. The consultants’ report also calls for more growth management, a strategy that King County has been following for more than 30 years, and has brought us million-dollar houses and $2,000-a-month studio apartments (another policy that benefits the well-off).
Imagine that our state does all these things, we all comply, and we get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Washington has 7.739 million people. That’s one tenth of 1 percent of humanity. Our share of global greenhouse gas emissions, based on the U.S. share, is probably closer to triple that figure — say, 3 tenths of 1 percent of the global total. Imagine that with all the subsidized EVs, the $5 gasoline, the free scooters, the battery-powered trucks, etc., we manage to hammer this three-tenths of 1 percent down to zero.
What difference would it make?
I know, we’re not supposed to ask that awkward question. Climate change is a crisis! We’ve got to do our share! All right — but it’s a global problem. A collective global problem. Our share needs to be part of a plan agreed to by the governments of the United States, Canada, the U.K, the E.U., Japan, South Korea, India, China, and Brazil, if not the whole United Nations. In short, the world cannot be saved from Olympia, Washington.
I recall the Democratic presidential debates of 2019. There on the stage was our leader, Jay Inslee, running for president. Inslee said he had a plan to save the world from climate change. At one point, the moderator asked him if he thought his plan could save Miami from being flooded by the rising seas. Inslee began with a rehearsed answer, checked himself, and said, “Yes.” And I thought, “Really?”