Virginia Senate Democrats vote down GOP-sponsored ‘clean cars’ repeal bills

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Senate Democrats on Tuesday defeated for a third straight year Republican efforts to repeal an electric vehicle mandate that aims to reduce carbon pollution through the adoption of California’s stringent rules for vehicle emissions.

A Senate committee voted down three GOP-sponsored bills that would have rolled back the so-called “clean cars” legislation first passed and signed into law in 2021. The law will phase in a requirement that all new cars, pickup trucks and SUVs offered for sale be 100% zero-emission by 2035. Sales of new gas-powered cars will be banned, though drivers will be able to keep their existing gas-powered cars or buy used ones.

“We know that we have not honored the commitment to keep our Earth green and to pass on to our children an environment that is really worthy of their future,” said Democratic Sen. Barbara Favola of Arlington as she spoke against the repeal measure, urging her colleagues not to reverse course.

Republicans strongly opposed the legislation when it was first adopted in 2021 and have tried unsuccessfully in each legislative session since to repeal it. They have made it a campaign issue, arguing its goals are unattainable and that the electric vehicles that will be required — and their batteries — are too expensive for many low-income and middle-class families. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has repeatedly called for a repeal, as recently as a speech to the General Assembly last week.

In Tuesday’s hearing, multiple Republican legislators said that while they also want to protect the environment, a mandate is not the best way to proceed.

“This should be personal choice,” Sen. Richard Stuart of King George said of the decision to purchase an electric vehicle.

Democrats have touted the bill as a major accomplishment, and environmental groups who welcomed Tuesday’s vote have said it’s one of the biggest steps Virginia has taken to address climate change.

Supporters say the law will make it easier and more likely that Virginians will choose cleaner cars and in turn help reduce pollution from the transportation sector, which federal data shows is Virginia’s single largest source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Environmental advocates also note that many major auto manufacturers have independently announcedplans to phase out gas-powered cars.

California’s vehicle emissions standards are stricter than the federal standard Virginia previously followed. California has had the authority to set its own for decades under a waiver from the federal Clean Air Act and has tightened its standards since Virginia first voted to adopt the legislation in 2021.

The program applies to manufacturers, not car dealers. Manufacturers who aren’t in compliance can buy credits from others who have surpassed the target.

Fifteen states besides Virginia and California have adopted California’s zero-emissions vehicle standards, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Repeal bills are still alive in the House of Delegates, which is also narrowly controlled by Democrats. But Tuesday’s action signals they are likely to meet the same fate.

The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee rolled several similar repeal bills together before voting the consolidated bunch down on an 8-6 party-line vote.

In a statement afterward, Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said the committee’s decision was disappointing.

“Government mandates like this for electric vehicles, which defy common sense, will hold Virginians hostage to higher costs and fewer choices. Governor Youngkin believes we should be empowering Virginians to make their own choice over the car they drive and will continue to work to lower costs and put power where it belongs — with the people,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden of Fairfax County, who chairs the committee, voted to defeat the repeal bills but not before adding that it was his view that “problems have arisen” in both the “clean cars” legislation and separate Democratic legislation from 2020 mandating that utilities transition to 100% renewable generation. The latter measure, called the Virginia Clean Economy Act, has generally been heralded by Democratic officials as a major accomplishment.

“There are many, many issues that we need to deal with that we can’t deal with here today,” he said, adding that he planned to convene a “major conference” of interested parties to discuss them.

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