Washington lawmakers consider shifting all new car sales to electric-only by 2030

Jan 28, 2021

You may be used to hearing a pushy car salesperson ask the timeless question, "What can I do to get you in this car?" But one big thing could be different in Washington state a decade from now. Proposals introduced this winter in the Washington Legislature would end sales of new gasoline-powered cars in the state by 2030.

The Democrat-backed proposals face opposition from Republicans, the oil industry and auto manufacturers. A prior version failed to advance out of committee in Olympia last session and the inside politics do not appear to have changed substantially since. However, the concept is catching on in a few other states and in countries overseas.

"I was really attracted to this policy because it is a commonsense policy that everyday people can understand," said state Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle), the prime sponsor in the state House.

Macri said it was important to set an ambitious date certain to accelerate a transition to electric vehicles and drive systemic change to reduce tailpipe pollution, Washington's largest source of climate warming emissions. She spoke Wednesday during a webinar for climate advocates hosted by the Seattle-based environmental nonprofit Coltura, which served as sort of a campaign kickoff for the Clean Cars 2030 bill.

On Thursday, General Motors injected fuel into the movement toward zero emissions cars by announcing it plans to phase out all gasoline and diesel-powered cars and SUVs from its product lines by 2035. In a striking shift, the largest U.S. automaker said it "aspires" to only sell light-duty vehicles with no tailpipe emissions from 2035 onward as it strives to become carbon neutral by 2040.

Macri's bill was assigned to the state House Transportation Committee, where it awaits a public hearing on February 1. An identical version was introduced in the state Senate by Sen. Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo). The Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature have declared climate change pollution to be one of their top priorities to address this year, but questions about practicalities dog this particular proposal.

"2030 is just not a workable date," said Ryan Spiller, a lobbyist for major automakers in the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

Spiller said automakers are working hard to expand their electric vehicle lineups, but he said it was "virtually impossible" to convert all of the industry's production to fully electric within the decade.

"Most people don't want an electric vehicle," Spiller added in an interview. "It shouldn't be a mandate."

Also again weighing in against is the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil refineries.

"The only way to effectively achieve climate goals is through an 'all of the above' energy strategy --  that includes more EVs, renewables and our products into the foreseeable future -- not mandates or bans," said Jessica Spiegel, Northwest region director for the oil industry trade group, in an email Wednesday.

The pending bill would require all public and privately owned passenger cars and light trucks of model year 2030 and later to be electric vehicles in order to be registered with the state Department of Licensing. People with gasoline-powered cars from model years before 2030 could continue driving them.

In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order ending sales of new gas-powered cars in the Golden State by 2035. Since then, the governors of Massachusetts and New Jersey have indicated they want to speed down that road, too.

In 2019, the British Columbia legislature was the first in North America to pass a gasoline-powered car phase out law. The province mandated all new light-duty cars and trucks must have zero emissions by 2040.

Overseas, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, France, Iceland, Slovenia, Japan and Israel are among countries that have announced plans to prohibit further sales of new fossil fuel cars between 2030 and 2040.

In an emailed statement, the Washington State Auto Dealers Association said it was concerned about Washington possibly being out in front by itself in the U.S. if the 2030 date passed into law. The statement said the dealers would prefer that lawmakers put Washington and California in sync.

Coltura founder and co-executive director Matthew Metz said he perceived gathering momentum for the Washington state legislation based on how many other places have moved to phase out gas-powered cars to achieve their climate goals.

"We've just got to cut gasoline use and cut it fast," Metz said Wednesday. "It's the biggest, lowest hanging fruit that there is."

Adoption of electric cars has been slow nationally. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Washington state has the second highest number of EVs registered of any state, after California. Even so, less than 2 percent of passenger vehicles on the road today in Washington state are fully electric.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles would also qualify for continued sale after 2030, but none of the major automakers deliver hydrogen cars to Washington state presently because there are no public fueling stations.

Today, the higher cost of plug-in cars relative to internal combustion engine vehicles is a deterrent for potential buyers. Metz and GM expect that gap to close by mid-decade from advances in battery technology and increased sales volumes.

This story has been updated.