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Automakers urge voluntary plan as Colorado pushes forward on electric vehicles

By
May 14, 2019, 9:49 am
The Subaru Crosstrek plug-in hybrid.

As Colorado moves forward with its plans to adopt a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standard to reduce smog and combat climate change, a coalition of automakers, petroleum interests and business groups is pushing the state to consider a voluntary electric vehicle plan rather than a mandate.

One of the first moves by Gov. Jared Polis following his inauguration in January was an executive order directing state public health and environment officials to begin the process of  making Colorado the 10th state with a ZEV standard – and the first that’s not on either coast.

Colorado already adopted a Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) standard late last year – a process started under Polis predecessor Gov. John Hickenlooper to counter Trump administration emission rollbacks — but had not yet taken the next, more ambitious step of signing onto ZEV.

On Friday, Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission voted unanimously to move ahead with public hearings on the ZEV standard in August. The dates and locations of those hearings will be made public by May 25 and sent to anyone on the AQCC mailing list.

The ZEV standard mandates auto manufacturers sell a certain percentage of electric vehicles (EVs) in a ZEV state, and in Colorado that means nearly 5 percent of all new cars sold by 2023.

California already had stricter vehicles emission standards when the federal Clean Air Act went into effect in the 1960s, so it was issued a waiver. States that opt out of lower federal standards and adopt the California rules require automakers to obtain ZEV credits depending on how many vehicles they sell in a state. ZEV includes both plug-in electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.  

“It’s tying us to standards made in California for California drivers and California conditions,” said Kelly Sloan of the Freedom to Drive business, automaker and petroleum coalition. “The problem of course is those don’t translate neatly to Colorado. We have different terrain, different weather, we drive longer distances, especially in the rural areas in the west and east [of the state]. We use our vehicles for different things.”

Sloan adds that manufacturers will simply pass on the added cost of ZEV credits to consumers of larger, gas-powered trucks and SUVs that make more sense in Colorado but aren’t being offered yet in electrified versions.

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat and rancher, says agricultural needs and the long hauls of getting kids to ski races in far-flung areas of the Rocky Mountains certainly have to be factored into the ZEV discussion, but she’s no buying the anti-California talking points.

“We know that Californication is a well-tested political saying that started in the last election and they will continue to use as long as it is the sound bite that resonates with voters,” Donovan said. “Of course we have to be cognizant of these rules that are made in a Denver-centric echo chamber.

“But the sky is falling arguments don’t seem stand the test of time, because let’s remember solar and wind energy was going to make everything cost more and what has it done? The opposite.”

Proponents of the ZEV rule say automakers are rapidly rolling out electrified light trucks and SUVs that are being sent to the nine populous ZEV states like California, Oregon, New York and Massachusetts, which already comprise nearly 40 percent of the nation’s vehicle sales.

Matthew Shmigelsky, transportation director for the nonprofit Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) in Carbondale, acknowledges the challenges of Colorado’s mountainous geography and winter weather in transitioning to electric vehicles, but he counters those conditions actually support adopting the ZEV standard in Colorado.

“What that means is we need the vehicles that the [manufacturers] are producing to meet that demand,” Shmigelsky said. “And they’re not showing up at this point by virtue of the fact that they’re being directed to those markets that have a [ZEV] requirement, so they know they have a defined market that they can sell into and they are delivering those there.”

Shmigelsky cites the electrified Subaru Crosstrek as a vehicle he thinks would be wildly popular if available in Colorado, and he adds that joining the other ZEV states would get Colorado out ahead of the national curve in terms of infrastructure, innovation and the labor force needed to make the inevitable transition.

“There’s already such a large portion of the car market that has this standard in place,” Shmigelsky said. “So, either you join the pack, or you fall behind, essentially.”

But Sloan says that’s artificially creating a market when Colorado is already ahead of the national curve on EV sales (more than 3 percent as of March, which is up from nearly 2 percent in 2017). Sloan acknowledges Polis is pushing hard for ZEV but feels a voluntary approach would work better for the state.

“I don’t think we have any illusions about [stopping the Polis ZEV push], but if we could potentially get to a place where instead of a stick they use a carrot, we could get away from a mandate distorting the market and [move toward] an agreement that dealerships will offer these vehicles if people will buy them,” Sloan said.

That’s what the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers recently proposed to the Polis administration – a ZEV alternative whereby manufacturers would voluntarily agree to increase the availability of EV models in the state beginning in 2020, step up marketing and assist in building out the state’s charging infrastructure.

The state issued a response to the AAM proposal late last week

“Colorado is committed to a fast, large-scale shift towards electric vehicles,” Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, said in a press release. “This is essential to cleaning up the ozone pollution in the Front Range and tackling climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions.”

The current timeline of the proposed ZEV standard doesn’t kick in until 2023.

“We are open to considering an alternative path to a ZEV standard, but only if it is going to get more EVs on the road earlier and faster,” Toor added. “In the meantime, we urge the AQCC to move forward with the ZEV rulemaking, to keep us on track for timely adoption of a ZEV standard if we are unable to reach an agreement that would accelerate adoption even faster than a regulatory standard.”

Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the Vail Daily.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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