US states may be able to enact laws requiring electric vehicles

Recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent has opened the door for states to enact laws requiring all new cars sold in the state to be electric as of a certain date, according to a law journal article by the nonprofit Coltura published in the University of Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law.   

The article points to the 2019 Supreme Court case of Virginia Uranium v Warren, which limited the ability of courts to scrutinise state motives in enacting statutes.

This would allow for state based vehicle electrification mandates that can withstand legal challenges based on federal preemption if they are based solely on reasons for transitioning to electric vehicles that are within the state's authority. Such reasons include advantages to the electrical grid such as load balancing and energy storage, increased jobs and economic development, reduced storm-water pollution and consumer savings.  States should avoid basing electrification mandates on vehicle emissions reduction and fuel economy -- grounds exclusively within federal control under the federal Clean Air Act and Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

"The Supreme Court has signalled openness to allowing states to go their own way on environmental matters," said Matthew Metz, lead author of the article and founder of Coltura, a nonprofit seeking to move the country beyond gasoline. "This is how our federal system should work, with states as laboratories of democracy."   

Seventeen countries have already announced plans to phase out sales of new internal combustion engine vehicles, with start dates ranging from 2025 to 2040. Four states, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Washington, collectively representing about 15% of the U.S. auto market, have all considered bills effectively requiring all new cars sold in the state to be electric. Passage of these bills could create a seismic shift in the U.S. auto market. 

The Washington bill, drafted according to the legal path identified in the law review article, required all new cars to be electric by 2030. The bill, HB 2515, introduced in the 2020 legislative session, gained the support of eight committee chairs in its first year. Advocates intend to seek passage of a similar bill in 2021.