“As people around the country and the areas that have been producing cars understand that there’s a lot of jobs to be created by producing electric cars, it changes everything,” says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, who consulted with GM on its recent goal to go emission-free by 2035.
The challenge for Democrats is that organized labor, while agreeing that the shift toward electric vehicles is inevitable, still worries that their production requires much less labor than that of cars and trucks powered by the conventional internal combustion engine — and fret that many of the key parts in EVs, particularly their batteries, are now manufactured almost exclusively abroad.
Those concerns leave labor uneasy about the pressure from environmentalists for Biden to set pollution reduction regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency that would effectively ban the sale of all or most internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 — a step that Biden steadfastly resisted during the Democratic primary campaign, when rivals such as Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed an even earlier prohibition.
Electric vehicles are “the direction we have to go but we need to make sure that we are creating jobs in America, starting with battery production,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who is close with organized labor, told me. “We need to make those batteries here, source the technology of that, and we have to look at how do we bring parts production back from other countries.”
Marketplace is shifting
Critically, McCarthy, who ran the EPA during Obama’s second term, adds, “the conversation has been really not about improvements in the internal combustion engine, which I’m sure we will end up talking about and regulating, but it’s also going to be clearly about how quickly we get to zero [emissions]” from cars and light trucks.
Shifts in the marketplace — capped by GM’s dramatic announcement last week that it will move to a zero-emissions future — are what’s allowed the Biden team to contemplate that visionary possibility.
The transition extends far beyond GM: Kristin Dziczek, a vice president at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says that since 2017, when Trump took office, roughly four-fifths of all automaker investments in the US have been for manufacturing and research related to electric vehicles.
“This is where they are putting their money,” she told me. “GM was loud and made a very bold statement, but several other automakers are in the same camp.”
Today, she says, automakers offer about 67 vehicles on the spectrum from hybrid to plug-in hybrids to fully electric cars and light trucks; by 2024, that number is expected to soar past 200.
Still, while that growth is impressive from a marketplace perspective, it doesn’t approach the scale required to bend the curve on greenhouse emissions. (Experts consider fully electric vehicles the key to climate progress because they do not emit any greenhouse gases, unlike hybrids, which still rely largely on internal combustion engines.) Full EVs still make up only about 1.6% of new vehicle sales, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Even with steady growth, the group projects that under current policies, EVs will represent only about 1 in every 10 new cars sold by 2030.
Chester France, who spent nearly 40 years at the EPA on air pollution issues and now consults for the Environmental Defense Fund, says he has seen more optimistic private forecasts from auto companies that anticipate fully electric vehicles might reach 20% or 25% of the market by then.
“I personally think we are at the tipping point,” he says. But, France adds, under any projection, “it’s got to accelerate.”
Throughout the presidential campaign, Biden promised to turbocharge that transition. His agenda included an array of incentives, such as funding to build 500,000 electric charging stations over the next decade, tax credits to encourage buyers to purchase EVs and the robust use of federal purchasing power to jump-start the market. Only days after taking office, he fulfilled one of those commitments when he announced he intends to replace the entire federal fleet of nearly 650,000 vehicles with electric models; the charging stations and tax incentives are expected to be included in the broader economic recovery package he’s slated to announce this month.
Organized labor strongly discouraged Biden from making such a commitment during the campaign, one senior union official told me, asking not to be identified while discussing internal conversations. That warning reflects the strain of ambivalence in the union movement about a potential large-scale shift to electric vehicles. Union leaders, the official said, accept that such a shift is not only inevitable but also indispensable.
“It’s real and you’ve got to do it — there’s a recognition that if you don’t do this in 10 or 15 years you are just out of business,” the official told me. “But,” the official added, “there’s a lot of trepidation around job loss.”
Environmentalists argue that a complete accounting on the shift from the internal combustion engine to electrified vehicles will show a net increase in jobs.
“As cars go electric, beyond the car itself, there is this need to construct charging stations, [to generate] wind power, more solar energy,” to power the cars, says Krupp. “It would be fair to look at the transition as a whole.”
Electrifying municipal transit and school buses and van fleets for package delivery companies and utilities could also generate new manufacturing jobs that offset any losses in the direct production of cars and light trucks for consumers.
“You’ve got to try to steer it,” the senior labor official told me. “The fight is about the job quality and making sure we have an effective industrial policy that is going to help us land that production here.”
“If we don’t come up with policies to capture that ground,” agrees France, “we will have a second-rate auto industry.”
“We are not in a battle against the oil industry or certainly the state of Texas,” she replied. “The conversations we’ve been having with the car companies make it very clear that the battle we are trying to fight is to have the United States provide leadership in clean energy, because that is what’s going to grow and stabilize our economy. So our fight is all about jobs; our job is all about manufacturing. That’s our battlefield.”
Carrots and sticks
After Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama’s rules requiring automakers to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Biden team is committed to establishing new national rules for cars and trucks.
“We certainly going to move to federal standards, and that’s no question,” McCarthy told me.
But it’s uncertain whether those rules will limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to the point that they would effectively ban sales of new internal combustion vehicles at some future date — the notion Biden resisted during the campaign. The answer will likely depend on whether the President can convince the key stakeholders, particularly the UAW and other relevant unions, that they can prosper in a fully electrified future.
McCarthy indicated the administration is not ready to commit to such a requirement, but she also suggested they do not see it as outside the parameters of the possible. While no decisions have been made, she says, in the administration’s initial conversations with the auto industry, “Nobody is hanging on to the old; they are all looking at how they can retool for the future.”
Any such rule would not require consumers to turn in their existing vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, and with about 275 million on them on the road, and the average vehicle lasting about 15 years, plenty would still be motoring around America until the middle of this century. But such a requirement would point toward a zero-emission future for transportation and a dramatic long-term decline in the country’s consumption of gasoline and diesel. That, plus a parallel requirement for utilities, would surely prompt scorched-earth resistance from the fossil fuel industry, and the states where it exerts the most economic and political influence.
“This is where Biden’s message is so important — that these are the jobs of the future,” says Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, a leading environmental group. “People have to understand that and agree with that, but that’s the powerful case to make. The job growth in the Midwest should be directly tied to the visionary standards that we need to meet [for clean vehicles] in the next 15 years.”
Which means that in the climate debate, convincing the manufacturing states that they can thrive in a clean-energy future may be Biden’s job one.