Back to Basics, Enforcement and Inspection, Environmental

Back to Basics: The Biden Administration’s Final New Auto Emissions Standards

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine the federal government’s new final auto emissions standards.

On March 20, 2024, the EPA announced final national pollution standards for passenger cars, light-duty trucks, and medium-duty vehicles for model years 2027 through 2032 and beyond. Although the final rule softens initial emissions requirements, it still reaches approximately 50% reductions over 2026 levels by 2032.

The adage about not pleasing everyone is certainly true here: Not everyone is happy, but many find the final rule palatable.

According to the Agency, the goal of the standards is to eliminate more than 7 billion tons of carbon emissions and provide nearly $100 billion of annual net benefits to society, including $13 billion of annual public health benefits due to improved air quality, as well as $62 billion in reduced annual fuel costs and maintenance and repair costs for drivers.

Transportation accounts for 28% of all U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the EPA.

“With transportation as the largest source of U.S. climate emissions, these strongest-ever pollution standards for cars solidify America’s leadership in building a clean transportation future and creating good-paying American jobs, all while advancing President Biden’s historic climate agenda,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in an Agency news release.

“Three years ago, I set an ambitious target: that half of all new cars and trucks sold in 2030 would be zero-emission,” said President Joe Biden in a CBS News article. “Today, we’re setting new pollution standards for cars and trucks.

“However, the new standards also ease a draft rule by the EPA that would have required car companies to rely on all-electric vehicles (EVs) as the sole solution to meet pollution targets. After months of talks with the auto industry and its workers, the EPA shifted to a strategy that would include a range of vehicles, including plug-in hybrid, hybrid and advanced gasoline vehicles to reach emission goals.”

“Let me be clear: Our final rule delivers the same, if not more, pollution reduction than we set out in our proposal,” Regan said, according to AP News. “Folks, these new standards are so important for public health, for American jobs, for our economy and for our planet.”

Why did the rule change?

The final standards conceded to criticism received from the public, automakers, car dealerships, and labor unions during the comment period on the proposed rules by easing benchmarks to be achieved during the first three years while still requiring an approximate 50% reduction in fleet-wide emissions in 2032 (compared with 2026 levels).

“The [EPA] in April 2023 proposed requiring a 56% reduction in new vehicle emissions by 2032,” according to Reuters. “Under the initial EPA proposal covering 2027-2032, automakers were expected to aim for EVs to constitute 60% of their new vehicle production by 2030 and 67% by 2032 to meet stricter emissions requirements.”

Additionally, with a conservative U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in power, federal agencies, including the EPA, have seen the Court’s tendency to curb Agency power in favor of closely following the specific power given to a federal agency by the legislative branch.

“The justices have restricted the EPA’s authority to fight air and water pollution—including a landmark 2022 ruling that limited the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants that contribute to global warming,” AP News says.

Final rule provides options

In that landmark ruling (West Virginia v. EPA), SCOTUS was very clear in deciding that it doesn’t look kindly on federal agencies’ mandating specific pathways for regulated industry to achieve compliance.

With that knowledge in mind, the EPA was careful to provide the automobile industry with a variety of options to meet the new emissions requirements in the final rule.

Regan said the government isn’t requiring people to buy EVs or any other technology, adding there are “multiple pathways companies can choose to comply″ with the rule, notes AP News.

“We are staying well within the confines of the law and our statutory authority by not mandating a specific technology,” he added.

The standards in the new rule are set to apply to a manufacturer’s entire fleet of new vehicles, meaning automakers still have the option to produce vehicles with higher emissions if they also offer enough EVs and/or hybrids to meet the emissions standards.

“That means over the next decade, automakers can continue to offer a range of vehicle types, but the ‘menu’ that’s available to consumers will shift to be cleaner overall,” NPR says.

The rule, as written, provides consumers “unprecedented flexibility” in vehicle choices, the EPA says in a fact sheet about the final rule. Consumer options include not only EVs and hybrids but also more fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicles.

Republicans disagree and describe the new rule as an EV mandate.

“These regulations represent yet another step toward an unrealistic transition to [EVs] that Americans do not want and cannot afford, which threatens America’s electric grid and increases our reliance on China for critical minerals,” said West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito in a press release.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., released a statement referring to the final rule as a “misguided electric vehicle mandate” that “will limit consumer choices and raise costs on American families who are already struggling from crippling inflation and high car payments.”

Political pressures

Lowering emissions levels is a political tightrope, placing Biden under conflicting pressures. On the one hand, he’s dedicated to meeting ambitious environmental goals. On the other, he must answer to American workers and fears that the shift to EVs will result in a loss of American jobs. Additionally, he’s going into a reelection year.

Last month, multiple sources reported that Biden was under pressure from the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union to slow the transition benchmarks within the proposed automobile emissions standards to give the union time to offer membership to workers at newer manufacturers, such as Tesla.

“During a contentious strike in the fall, the [UAW] sounded the alarm that a rapid shift to EVs could come at the expense of well-paying jobs,” The Washington Post reports. “The union has been wary of EVs because they generally require fewer workers to assemble than gasoline-powered vehicles, and because many EV plants are being built in Southern states less friendly to unions.”

Last spring, the UAW withheld its endorsement of Biden over concerns with the transition to EV. After the proposed rule was released, The Washington Post says the UAW endorsed Biden.

“And former President Donald Trump has railed against EVs in his speeches as he seeks the Republican nomination for president,” notes CNN.

Trump’s criticisms include mocking climate change and characterizing the EV market as one that will give American jobs to China.

“Biden argues that U.S. auto builders need to take the lead in the expanding EV market,” according to VOA News.

“I brought together American automakers. I brought together American autoworkers,” said Biden in a statement in VOA News. “Together, we’ve made historic progress.”

“U.S. workers will lead the world on autos—making clean cars and trucks, each stamped ‘Made in America,’” according to Biden in AP News. “You have my word.”

“The [UAW] union … said it supports rules that benefit workers and the environment, not just the industry. The new rule protects workers who build combustion engine vehicles ‘while providing a path forward for automakers to implement the full range of automotive technologies to reduce emissions,’ the union said,” according to AP News.

More time is a good thing

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI), a trade organization representing the auto industry, released a statement in support of slower implementation of the final emissions standards and the overall transition to EVs.

“Moderating the pace of EV adoption in 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030 was the right call because it prioritizes more reasonable electrification targets in the next few (very critical) years of the EV transition,” said John Bozzella, president and CEO of the AAI, in the statement. “These adjusted EV targets—still a stretch goal—should give the market and supply chains a chance to catch up. It buys some time for more public charging to come online, and the industrial incentives and policies of the Inflation Reduction Act to do their thing.”

The EV market

Many question whether there’s enough demand for EVs to meet more stringent emissions standards.

“In order to get to a much more ambitious level of sales [of EVs], say half of new vehicle sales by 2030, a lot has to change. We have to invest in charging infrastructure,” Bozzella said.

U.S. EV sales grew to a record of 1.19 million last year—a 47% jump over the previous year, according to AP News. This number reflects a market share of 7.6% of new car sales. However, automakers experienced a sales slump late in the year, then hit another 34% rise in December.

“The auto industry cited lower sales growth in objecting to the EPA’s preferred standards unveiled last April as part of its ambitious plan to cut planet-warming emissions from passenger vehicles,” AP News says. “The EPA said that under its final rule, the industry could meet the limits if 56% of new vehicle sales are electric by 2032, along with at least 13% plug-in hybrids or other partially electric cars, as well as more efficient gasoline-powered cars that get more miles to the gallon.”

Aside from last year’s rising EV sales, automakers cited “consumer hesitancy over battery range and insufficient charging infrastructure” as a reason to shift higher production capacity to hybrids instead of EVs, CBS News says.

EV infrastructure

One of the main complaints from consumers is the lack of EV charging stations. Slow growth in charging stations has translated to slower sales.

“Although many EV drivers charge their vehicles at home, EV advocates have complained about a lack of functioning public charging stations across the country,” The Washington Post says. “Even in California, a hotbed of EV adoption, only 72.5 percent of all fast public chargers in San Francisco Bay Area were operational in early 2022, according to a study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.”

Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which passed in November 2021, allocated $5 billion to build a nationwide EV charging network.

The initial goal of the program was to install 500,000 EV chargers by 2030.  However, it was October 2022 before the first one came online, according to CBS News.

“We have seen investment in [charging] infrastructure over the last year, we anticipate that it will continue to increase,” Regan told CBS News. “The industry, the private sector, and good policy will converge in a way that allows for [EVs] to excel.”

“As of early 2024, 33 states have submitted requests for chargers, with 16 states awarded contracts, and installation is currently underway,” CBS News says. “There are currently 170,000 public charging ports across the country, with an average of 900 new chargers opening every week, according to the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation.”

The final rule has received mixed reactions


The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) praised the final rule, with Manish Bapna, NRDC president, calling it a step in the right direction, AP News says.

While the final rule significantly reduces GHG emissions from the transportation sector, it means it’s “unlikely that the U.S. will be able to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord,” said David Cooke, senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, according to AP News.

However, Dan Becker, director of the safe climate transport campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, heavily criticized the final rule, according to multiple sources.

“The EPA caved to pressure from Big Auto, Big Oil and car dealers and riddled the plan with loopholes big enough to drive a Ford F150 through,” Becker said in VOA News. “The weaker rule means cars and pickups spew more pollution, oil companies keep socking consumers at the pump, and automakers keep wielding well-practiced delay tactics.”

Becker also expressed concern that “the industry will get away with doing little during the first three years of the standards, which could be undone if former President Donald Trump is reelected.”

Oil industry

The oil industry has openly criticized a shift to EVs because higher conversions to electric transportation will reduce demand for the industry.

The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association has blasted EV batteries and their environmental impact, NPR says, though research and studies have shown that EVs create a smaller carbon footprint than traditional gas-powered vehicles.

“But the oil industry’s opposition goes even further,” NPR adds. “The attorney general of Texas has previously filed a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s authority to set rules designed to promote [EVs]. Multiple oil trade groups backed Texas in the case. The auto industry sided with the EPA, noting that carmakers are investing billions in going electric and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a ‘national priority.’”

At the end of the day, the oil industry sees the same outcome in 2032: less gas-fueled vehicles operating in the United States.


Even within automakers, various factions have different takes on the new rule. EV manufacturers like Rivian and Tesla wanted more stringent guidelines, with Tesla calling for 69% of market share for EVs by 2032 and 100% by 2035 in public comments submitted for the initial proposed rule.

“Automakers also object to the EPA plan to largely eliminate the use of ‘enrichment’—a strategy to boost performance and prevent engine damage from hot exhaust gases—which they say would bar them from using some engines,” Reuters notes.

Overall, the auto manufacturers’ industry is supportive of a zero-emissions future even if it isn’t necessarily certain of the best route to get there.

Other measures in the rule

The final rule also regulates the reduction of other types of tailpipe pollution in addition to GHG emissions and assumes the phase-in of gasoline particulate filters (GPF) beginning in model year 2027.

For more information, see the EPA website “Final Rule: Multi-Pollutant Standards for Model Years 2027 and Later Light-Duty and Medium Duty Vehicles” and the EPA Regulatory Impact Analysis of the final rule.

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