Dirty air and an overheated planet: Minnesota should enact clean car rules | Column

Evening rush hour in Minneapolis, pre-pandemic. Getty Images.

Stop your doomscrolling for a moment and recognize some good news: Thanks to the Clean Air Act and automobile innovations that followed, the United States has achieved major reductions in air pollution, with particulate matter down more than 40% since 2000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Perhaps the greatest achievement, however, has been the elimination of lead in gasoline. 

As Amherst College economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes and many other researchers have shown, “reduction in childhood lead exposure in the late 1970s and early 1980s is responsible for significant declines in violent crime in the 1990s.” That’s because lead is a severe neurotoxin in children, affecting brain development, including impulse control.

It nearly didn’t happen. Writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, Kenneth Bridbord and David Hanson describe the resistance they faced as government scientists: 

“Concerns were also raised about the adverse impact the regulation would have on companies that manufactured lead additives and on the oil company refineries. It was further postulated that removing lead would cause gas prices to skyrocket.”

Still, despite the progress, air pollution kills between 100,000 and 200,000 Americans every year, according to a study published last year by researchers at the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 5% to 10% of residents who die in a typical year do so at least in part because of particulate matter and ground-level ozone caused by burning fossil fuels. 

An earlier study from MIT found that the largest contributor to these deaths comes from car and truck emissions, causing about 53,000 premature deaths in the United States annually. 

And oil companies have known for decades about the harmful effects of their product on human health, even as the the specter of climate catastrophe shadows the entire planet. 

Now we’re nearing the beginning of the end of gas-powered passenger vehicles, and the administration of Gov. Tim Walz wants Minnesota to play a part, nearing completion of new rules that would force automakers to achieve both low- and zero-emission targets.

As ever before, industry has sprung into action, launching a furious lobbying effort to stop it. 

The Minnesota Auto Dealer Association spent nearly $700,000 lobbying state government in 2020 — the sixth-most of any interest group in Minnesota — trying to stop the new emissions rules.   

They’ve taken special aim at greater Minnesota, running Facebook ads about how Walz would “sign away control of Minnesota’s auto rules to California regulators.”

(No, he wouldn’t.)

State Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, put out a video warning that the standards would apply to “tractors, and even electric coops’ diesel generators.” 

Not true, as Rarick acknowledged when he put out another video clarifying his remarks

Rarick told me he meant to say he views the clean car rules as a slippery slope of agencies ignoring the Legislature and imposing draconian rules. 

“If it happens on this one, it will happen in other areas,” he said 

The effort here is to make this a culture war issue: Real Americans in greater Minnesota won’t be able to buy their Chevy Silverado High Country because the fancy metro Tesla people with their climate change hoaxes and their state bureaucrats won’t let them. 

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At least eight county commissions have adopted resolutions opposing the rules.

And a bill set to hit the floor of the GOP-controlled state Senate would repeal the Walz administration’s rulemaking authority on auto emissions

Some background so we can assess the claims: 

When President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, the law allowed states to adopt the new federal rules or regulations California already had in place. Suffering the worst air pollution in the country, California had tougher standards. 

Over time, more than a dozen states have adopted the tougher standards — most recently Virginia — in total representing more than one-third of the population of the United States.

There are two major areas being considered: One is for low-emission vehicles, and the other is for zero-emission vehicles. 

The first is a no-brainer: Between 2012 and 2020, the federal government and California emission rules were joined together. Even though sales of cars and trucks still climbed ever higher, the administration of former President Donald Trump rolled back the regulations last year in a sop to the fossil fuel industry.

The new Minnesota rules would merely restore the tougher low-emission vehicle rules we had in place with the rest of the country, and a bevy of automakers have said they’re going to continue as if the Trump rollback never happened. Like I said: A no-brainer. 

The decision on a zero-emission vehicle rule is more complicated. 

It would establish a system of credits that automakers could buy, sell and trade as they seek to meet mandates on the number of electric and plug-in hybrids they sell. 

On its face, this doesn’t seem that onerous. General Motors has already announced that by 2035 it won’t even sell gas-powered vehicles. 

Scott Lambert, president of Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, told me that dealerships, not manufacturers, would bear the brunt of the mandate, however. They aren’t given cars to sell. They buy cars from the manufacturers, and turn around and sell them to consumers. So, they’re taking on a lot of risk, and unsold electric vehicles on their lots would be crippling, he said.  

Lambert points to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s estimates that mandates would require manufacturers to sell 18,800 electric vehicles in model year 2025. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, electric vehicles were 0.6% of new car sales in Minnesota in 2017: 3,000 electric and 3,000 plug-in hybrids. 

Because electric batteries don’t operate well in colder climates, Lambert said, Minnesota is unlikely to emerge as a leader in this space. 

(Although Scandinavian countries have the highest rates of electrical car usage. Go figure.) 

Lambert said dealers don’t care if they sell gas or electric vehicles, but the mandate is impossible: “There’s no way we’re going to sell those vehicles,” he said, painting a picture of dealers holding the bag, especially in greater Minnesota communities where people want gas-powered trucks. 

And, like grocery and drug stores, the closure of an auto dealership would be a financial and psychic blow to those communities. 

Mary Robinson, a spokesperson for MPCA, said manufacturers and dealers would have plenty of time to start preparing the market and determining a strategy for selling more EVs — or they could buy credits and keep operating as is. They would be granted an initial full year’s worth of credit allotment, still more credits if they bring electric vehicles to the state before 2025, plus they would have two years between adoption and implementation of the rules.

I’m also unsure whether to believe the industry when it says they don’t care if they sell gasoline or electric vehicles. 

According to Edmunds, the service and parts department accounts for nearly half the typical dealership’s gross profits, citing the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Guess what? Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts, and the repair and maintenance of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is half as much as your internal combustion model, according to 2020 research from Consumer Reports

The entire debate — on this and many other issues — ignores the relationship between regulation and innovation.

As Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter wrote in a famous essay a quarter century ago, regulation can force stagnant companies and industries to innovate while also achieving policy goals. American automakers were lucky they had to adapt to fuel efficiency standards in the 1970s — they were forced to innovate to compete with better made and more efficient German and Japanese models.   

Conservatives often admit as much when they oppose the minimum wage, saying this and other labor rules will merely lead to job loss due to … automation. 

Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.  

Also lost in this debate: If you don’t want to buy an electric vehicle, you don’t have to. The mandate isn’t on consumers. 

It’s true the mandate may increase the cost of some new gas-powered vehicles. 

So be it. The internal combustion engine has granted unimaginable freedom to hundreds of millions of humans. But it’s also wreaked a lot of havoc, and it’s time to move on, time to get going.