Aug 30, 2022

California's gas car ban.

California's gas car ban.
Photo by Ernest Ojeh / Unsplash

Plus, is student debt forgiveness legal?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

California's new car rules, plus a question about the legality of forgiving student loans.

Photo by Ernest Ojeh / Unsplash

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Quick hits.

  1. At least 10 people were killed and several injured when Iraqi protesters clashed with security forces in Baghdad following the decision by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to resign. (The deaths)
  2. The Justice Department said only a "limited set" of documents seized from former President Trump may be protected by attorney-client privilege. (The claim)
  3. Ukraine began its much-anticipated counter-offensive against Russian forces in the southern region of the country. (The fight)
  4. More than 33 million people in Pakistan have been impacted by flooding. The United Nations issued a flash appeal for $160 million in aid. (The floods)
  5. A new study says the melting of Greenland's ice sheet could raise sea levels by 10.6 inches by the year 2100, more than twice the previous projections. (The study)

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Today's topic.

California's gas car ban. On Thursday, California announced it would ban the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035. The announcement from the most populous state in the U.S., and the state many consider the center of U.S. car culture, has the potential to reshape the auto industry. With what amounts to the fifth largest economy in the world, California’s influence exceeds its own state boundaries. When it adopted tailpipe emission standards, 17 other states followed suit. Already, several other states are planning to implement the gas car ban or similar regulations, including Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, and New York.

Virginia, which passed a law in 2021 to align its emission standards with California's, could also mimic the ban on new gas-powered cars unless the legislature intervenes.

California's new rules were issued by the California Air Resources Board but still have to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The policy will not ban people from continuing to drive gas cars or from buying and selling them on the used market after 2035. More than 16% of cars sold in California in 2022 were zero-emissions vehicles.

The proposed rules will establish a credit system for automakers supplying California car dealerships. Automakers will have to meet benchmarks along the way. By 2026, 35% of sales must consist of zero-emission vehicles; by 2030, 68%; by 2035, 100%. No more than one-fifth of the new cars produced in 2035 can be plug-in hybrids. They will also need to implement long-lasting and recyclable batteries. If an automaker fails to hit the benchmarks, it will have to obtain credits from another manufacturer who exceeded their quota. They can also be fined $20,000 per vehicle sold in violation of the target.

Liana Randolph, the chair of the California Air Resources Board, said the rule will lead to a 50% reduction in pollution from cars and light trucks by 2040.

Below, we'll take a look at some arguments from the right and left about this policy. Then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is critical of the policy, saying it will harm working class Americans and strain California’s power grid.
  • Some argue it's a gift to China.
  • Others say electric vehicles aren't ready for mass adoption.

In Newsweek, Jonathan Tobin said the news was a "blow to the working class" and a gift to China.

"The big losers will be poor and working-class Americans," Tobin wrote. "Car companies will adjust to whatever rules the government sets and pass on the costs to consumers. Even considering the massive federal subsidies that—while still enriching their manufacturers and investors—artificially depress their exorbitant cost, electric cars are far more expensive than gas-powered ones. The average cost for a new electric car is $66,000, compared with $48,000 for an average new combustion engine car... Like President Joe Biden's decision to 'forgive' student loan debts, this ban strikes one more blow against the poor and working class.

"The measure is also a gift to the nation's most dangerous rival: China," he said. "China currently is the source of the most essential component of non-combustion-engine cars: electric batteries. The Biden administration pretends it can fix this problem by encouraging (with more subsidies and tax breaks) the building of new factories in the United States. But the Chinese have already cornered the market on the mining of minerals, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, that are necessary to build electric batteries."

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen argued the policy will fail because electric cars aren't advantageous for consumers yet.

"Batteries of all types eventually lose their ability to store electricity, and vehicle batteries are no exception," Olsen said. "The longer you own an EV, the more the battery will deplete and require frequent recharging. This happens more quickly in places with extreme heat or cold — which is to say, most places in the United States outside of California. That means an owner will either have to recharge their car more frequently, raising operating costs, or even replace their battery at substantial costs. Manufacturers typically warranty their battery for 10 years or 100,000 miles, but that’s little comfort for someone who expects to drive their vehicle beyond those points. Then you get the problem of convenience.

"Gas-powered cars can run for hundreds of miles without needing refueling, and filling the tank takes only a few minutes," he added. "EVs are catching up on the ability to go long distances, but they can’t come close to matching the refueling advantage gas-powered cars have. Even with a Level 2 charger, which itself costs hundreds — or thousands — of dollars to purchase and install in one’s home, it takes hours to fully recharge a drained battery. That’s a matter of hard physical science, not economics, making EVs a problematic purchase for households that drive long distances frequently... This gap between hope and reality is endemic in climate change policy. People have minds of their own and balance climate goals against a host of other considerations. If achieving climate aspirations costs too much, most people will abandon them in favor of other, more personally important goals."

In Fox News, Tom Del Beccaro said Newsom is trying to build a presidential platform on a broken set of policies.

"As Americans are beset with inflation and a recession, you might wonder whether mandating high-priced electric cars makes sense and whether Newsom should be preaching to the rest of the country," Del Beccaro said. "California has an energy shortage. Period. Full stop... There is also the very serious problem with the fact that California’s existing power grid is so outdated that it isn't ‘ready to take on the level of electrification,’ their green new policies require. The grid cannot handle the solar mandates California has imposed... You might be asking yourself, right about now, how can a state that cannot reliably deliver electricity to its citizens and businesses simultaneously require the use of massive amounts of more electricity?

"Please, stop being so logical," he wrote. "Now, by requiring its residents [to] buy expensive electric cars in the years to come, hitting them with the highest income taxes in the country and all its other problems, California’s green-energy car ban will drive even more Californians out of the state. If you don’t think that matters to you, don’t forget, as I wrote recently, Newsom wants to be your president. So, if you think things are bad now under President Joe Biden, think how bad it could be if Newsom is elected to de-energize the nation."

What the left is saying.

  • The left supports the policy, though some worry about the ways it could fail.
  • Many welcome California accelerating the national adoption of electric cars.
  • Others argue the policy is a game changer for the planet.

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson said California is speeding up the future of cars.

"What makes this such a big deal — aside from the fact that if California were a country, it would be the 10th-largest automobile market in the world — is that 15 other states follow the zero-emissions standards set in Sacramento," Robinson said. "If they sign on to this mandate, too, the rule would cover more than one-third of all new vehicles sold in the country, essentially giving California the power to set emissions policy for the whole nation. Automakers such as Toyota, General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Honda and Volvo have in recent months affirmed their support of California’s right to set emissions rules. That might be because they’d like to be eligible to sell vehicles to the state government. And even before California announced its new rule, the industry was already racing to make the switch to zero-emissions vehicles because consumers are demanding them.

"Transportation accounts for roughly 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions. By 2040, the new policy is expected to reduce the carbon footprint of passenger vehicles in the state by more than half, even when taking into account the fossil fuels that might be burned to generate the electricity needed to power zero-emissions vehicles," Robinson wrote. "This should be a moment of considerable optimism. One reason is that electric cars are so much fun to drive, with acceleration that puts old gas-powered muscle cars to shame. Another is that there is hardly any maintenance to speak of — no oil changes, no spark plugs to replace, no radiator coolant to worry about."

In Slate, Nitish Pahwa said the ban on gas cars can't fail.

"It can be said with no hyperbole that this is a game-changer. A former Environmental Protection Agency official told the New York Times that 'California will now be the only government in the world that mandates zero-emission vehicles.' (Emphasis mine.) A clean-air expert called the rules a 'turning point in cleaning up pollution.' Plus, as California goes, so does the nation: 16 other states already adhere to longtime California policy on reducing carbon emissions from transportation—still the most climate-damaging sector to date—and increasing the use of 'clean' and low-emission cars," Pahwa said. "Things have changed significantly for both the domestic-EV and combustion-engine market over the past decade, making the new California rules less a threatening deadline than a reasonable, workable, legally binding guidepost.

"For one, it’s already the case that 16 percent of new cars sold in California so far this year were zero-emission vehicles," Pahwa said. "That’s already a rapid shift from EV sales in 2019, which only made up 7.4 percent of the state’s auto market at the time. According to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation’s own reports, sales of EVs in every single state increased by some amount in 2021, with significant above-average jumps in states like Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, and even Oklahoma," Pahwa wrote. "It’s also the case that California’s ban doesn’t remove gasoline-fueled cars from the streets altogether, but merely ensures new gas-based engines will be gradually displaced by the zero-emission-vehicle revolution; this will provide fewer options for gas guzzlers to pollute the skies for however long they may last."

In The New York Times, Lisa Friedman and Brad Plumer said there are still legal issues to consider.

"The other big questions surrounding California’s new rule are how many other states adopt it, and whether it could be stopped in its tracks by lawsuits. Under the Clean Air Act, California is allowed to set stricter rules on vehicle emissions than the federal government, and other states are allowed to adopt California’s rules if they choose. California can enforce its rule once it receives an official waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency. The E.P.A. is likely to grant California a waiver to enforce the new rules... In recent years, 15 other states (together making up roughly one-third of America’s vehicle market) have adopted California’s previous, smaller rules to encourage electric vehicle sales.

"Those states will now each need to make a decision on whether to adopt the new 2035 ban on internal combustion engines. So far, five of those states — Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have signaled that they are prepared to do so this year, once California receives an E.P.A. waiver," they wrote. "Other states may take more time. In recent years, officials in Colorado and Minnesota faced fierce opposition from local car dealerships and industry groups when they moved to adopt some of California’s earlier rules, though both states eventually moved forward."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • There is some major risk with the policy.
  • Still, California has earned the right to lead — and has the backing of the auto industry.
  • Demand for EVs is rising, and we have the ingredients emerging for a healthy overhaul over the next 10-20 years.

As with every piece of public policy, this one is far from perfect.

California's power grid is already overwhelmed, and adding more electric cars is not going to help. The minerals necessary to meet the demand for electric vehicles are already setting off a race to mine the ocean floor, which is a new environmental issue we'll have to navigate.  A surge in production of electric vehicles could push the price down, but it could also force prices higher if it exacerbates production bottlenecks the industry is already facing.

And yes, those prices are already high: The average electric vehicle sells for about $66,000, compared to $48,000 for your average gas-powered vehicle, meaning the transition will be easiest for the wealthy at a time when lower and middle-income folks are already being hit hard by inflation. Worse, given that most low and middle-income people don’t buy new cars, the prices of used EVs are also skyrocketing.

But there is a counter-narrative to all those points.

California's power grid has been crushed, in part, by extreme heat and wildfires, which are being worsened by climate change, which is the real problem zero-emission cars are trying to address.

While the race for minerals is on, there are some encouraging signs there: In 2018, 86% of electric vehicle batteries were powered by cobalt, a rare metal. Today, with new innovations, that's down to 60%. The U.S. is also reshoring the manufacturing of computer chips and batteries to rely less on China and reduce supply chain issues. And while EV prices are going up (faster than gas-powered cars), that's in part because demand is so high, which has overwhelmed the production lines. When gas prices exploded, consumers and car dealers began snatching up EVs to buy and sell. Ramping up production could very well make those issues more strained in the near-term, but we're nowhere close to meeting the demand right now.

To me, the best case for this policy is threefold: One, the climate needs it. Automakers have a huge say in what lies ahead for the future of the planet, and this policy goes to a primary source of emissions and addresses it on a clear, achievable timeline.

Two, it's a state policy, not a federal one. California earned the power to dictate how the industry moves by being the center of the car universe. It's wielding that power to pursue a commendable goal: to reduce emissions and clean up our air.

Three, the industry is already headed this way. Toyota, Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Bentley, GM, Honda, and Volvo were already working to phase out gas-powered vehicles in the next couple decades — and are openly supportive of California's right to set these rules. That they aren’t putting up a fight is very telling.

These companies are making EVs because consumer demand is there. 14% of Americans would "definitely" buy or lease an EV, up from 4% in 2020. 22% would "seriously consider it." That's right now, despite high prices, limited range, and supply issues. If mass production can bring down prices, and the biggest automakers compete to make the most efficient and affordable vehicles, the infrastructure bill ramps up the number of charging stations, and the government provides credits to buy new EVs — that’s a world where this is a recipe for success.

With all the potential snags considered — the cost, the new set of environmental issues, the limited choices for consumers — I think this policy, with 13 years to implement gradually, still has the potential for massive upside. All of the biggest issues can be resolved organically over time by the competition already underway to win over the mass market, and even if people initially resistant or unable to buy EVs hold onto their gas-powered cars longer, that is still an upside. It means people are keeping their cars longer and there’ll be fewer cars on the road.

All told: I'm hopeful. Hopeful the innovators that make our country's auto industry a titan can bring down the cost for consumers, hopeful we can find ways to responsibly supply batteries, and hopeful the automaking industry will on-ramp a fleet of new EVs with range comparable to gas vehicles. In the long run, the money consumers will save on fuel, the energy independence we'll garner from being less reliant on oil, and the benefits for the planet will all be massive wins for the United States.

Your questions, answered.

Q: What is the legal/constitutional underpinning for the President to be able to have the taxpayers cover this student loan debt?

— Louise, Topton, Pennsylvania

Tangle: This might be worthy of its own newsletter (with a breakdown of arguments from both sides). To be frank: The legality of the plan largely depends on who you ask. Biden himself said he would not execute the plan unless he were confident in its legality, and he's now citing the legal analysis of the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to back it up.

The DOJ and the Education Department both cited the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act (HEROES Act) of 2003, not to be confused with the The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES Act) of 2019. The 2003 HEROES Act gave the Secretary of Education authority to alter student financial assistance programs during a war, military operation, or “national emergency.” National emergency — aka, the pandemic — is what the Biden administration is citing now. It's the same justification Trump and Biden used to pause student debt payments.

The Supreme Court's recent ruling in a case involving the EPA cited the "major questions doctrine," which requires explicit permission from Congress for an agency to employ extraordinary actions. That rule could come into play and undermine the debt relief.

Some liberal legal watchers like Slate's Mark Joseph Stern have already predicted the Supreme Court will block student loan forgiveness. And Republicans are looking for a plaintiff to sue. So I suspect this is far from over.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The rising cost of natural gas is driving up the price of heating and electricity, and some 20 million U.S. households are now behind on their utility payments, according to Bloomberg. That is roughly 1 in 6 homes in America. The National Energy Assistance Directors Association says it is the worst crisis the group has ever documented, underpinning a surge in electricity prices. Utility shut-offs have dire impacts, especially at a time when heat waves are battering regions across the U.S. Bloomberg has the story.


  • 44%. President Biden's job approval, according to the latest Gallup poll.
  • 38%. President Biden's job approval according to last month's Gallup poll.
  • 67%. The percentage of Americans who favor providing incentives to increase use of hybrid and electric vehicles.
  • 84%. The percentage of Democrats who favor providing incentives to increase use of hybrid and electric vehicles.
  • 46%. The percentage of Republicans who favor providing incentives to increase use of hybrid and electric vehicles.
  • 45%. The percentage of Americans who say they are not too likely or not at all likely to seriously consider buying an electric car the next time they buy a vehicle.
  • 42%. The percentage of Americans who say they are very or somewhat likely to seriously consider buying an electric car the next time they buy a vehicle.

Have a nice day.

Last year, James Humphries noticed that many of the seniors at the community center where he worked had shoes that were worn out or too big. One resident, in particular, concerned Humphries because he was partially blind. When Humphries got him a new pair of shoes, a colleague noticed and mentioned that she had a contact at New Balance. The domino effect began, and before they knew it the company was donating 20 pairs of shoes to the 2Life senior community. Humphries said the residents were "taken aback" and "super happy." The Week has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.