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Youngkin’s illegal attempt to kill Clean Cars emissions standards

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Youngkin’s illegal attempt to kill Clean Cars emissions standards

Jun 11, 2024 | 5:45 am ET
By Trip Pollard
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Youngkin’s illegal attempt to kill Clean Cars emissions standards
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Electric car in charging. (Getty Images)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has taken the extraordinary — and illegal — step of announcing his administration will ignore Virginia law and withdraw from the vehicle emissions standards known commonly as the Clean Cars program, which would reverse the state’s most significant action to date to curb climate pollution. This attempt to circumvent the law comes after repeated failed attempts to convince the General Assembly to repeal the Clean Cars statute. 

Unfortunately, we’ve seen such shocking executive overreach from Youngkin before. He similarly sought to unlawfully remove Virginia from participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, contrary to another state statute aimed at cutting climate pollution that also funds energy efficiency and flood resilience. Now the target is Clean Cars, never mind the facts and the law.

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Clean Cars is the law

As part of the misinformation provided to justify scrapping Clean Cars, the Governor and his allies have repeatedly stated or implied that Virginia should set its own vehicle emission standards. The truth is, we can’t. 

Under the federal Clean Air Act, Virginia has two options to adopt to control vehicle emissions:: federal standards developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the more environmentally protective state standards California is federally authorized to set. Virginia did not abdicate state authority over tailpipe emissions standards to “unelected leaders” in California, as Youngkin claims. Virginia lawmakers — our publicly-elected representatives — asserted state authority in 2021 by choosing to adopt and maintain consistency with standards that do more to protect our health and our environment. The regulations carrying out this directive went into effect in January 2024.

The benefits of Clean Cars

Virginia is one of 17 states that have adopted the more protective vehicle emissions standards. And for good reason: The Clean Cars standards will substantially cut transportation pollution, the source of almost half of carbon emissions in Virginia that are fueling the climate crisis. Gas-powered vehicles are also a significant source of other harmful pollution like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter that cause serious health impacts across Virginia, including premature death, and disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities. 

The standards require automakers to deliver an increasing number of both cleaner gas-powered vehicles and zero-emission vehicles for sale in the commonwealth. Contrary to misinformation being spread by opponents, the Clean Cars standards do not ban gas-powered vehicles. They only apply to new vehicles. And under the law, zero-emission vehicles include both fully electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) that still have gas-powered engines. 

Since automakers prioritize sending clean vehicles to states with the Clean Cars standards, adopting the standards increases the number of new vehicle models available and helps our economy, since at least one-third of registered EVs were purchased out of state before the standards took effect. Cleaner vehicles will also save Virginians money. In 2021, Virginians spent almost $11 million on imported gas. But EV drivers typically spend the equivalent of approximately $1 per gallon for a full charge, and the typical EV can be driven 150 to 400 miles before it needs to be recharged. 

We can’t afford to lose the benefits of Clean Cars. 

A convenient flip-flop

Attorney General Miyares’ office previously — and correctly — concluded that Virginia law requires adoption of the Clean Cars standards and updates, and Miyares called upon the General Assembly to repeal the legislation. Throughout the implementation process, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality — again, correctly — also noted that the standards were required by law. And they concluded that the regulations would automatically update to maintain consistency with any future changes to the Clean Cars Program.

Now, Miyares has flip-flopped and instead asserts that the governor can unilaterally override a law passed by the General Assembly. It is striking that this new interpretation arrives over halfway through his term, and Youngkin’s, and only after the legislature has, for three years, rejected every proposed bill to repeal the Clean Cars law. How convenient.

Moving forward

The Governor is not above the law. Virginia must continue to implement the Clean Cars standards until the General Assembly chooses otherwise, ensuring that all Virginians enjoy the health, economic, and environmental benefits of the most substantial step the state has ever taken to cut tailpipe pollution.