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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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Westneat: EV trend cooking with gas

Inside strange alliance that’s making state’s ban on gas cars possible


‘When will the last gas station in Seattle turn out its lights?”

Matthew Metz is getting ahead of himself. That’s kind of his thing — talking crazy fringe dreamer stuff that sometimes suddenly becomes true.

So it was recently when first California, then Gov. Jay Inslee here in Washington, decided to get rid of gas cars, with plans to ban the sale of any new ones by a target date of 2035.

The step is monumental, an attempt at no less than phasing out the internal combustion engine. When Metz, a Seattle tort lawyer turned environmental crusader, first started pushing this idea of making America gasoline-free, it was called “radical” and “moonbatty.”

“I’d say the reaction is about 99.9 percent negative,” Metz told me after the first bill to phase out gas cars was introduced.

That was just five years ago. Now there’s a wholesale policy shift toward electric and other zero-emission cars, seemingly getting a full body hug from the car industry.

“I think ultimately what happened is environmentalists and auto companies found themselves coming together on the same side,” says Metz, who founded the Seattle-based group Coltura to push for an end to gas. “That shifted everything.”

You could see this in hearings at the state Capitol in Olympia when earnest legislators and enviros first started proposing the gas-car phaseout. The industry heavy-hitters would line up to squash it: the automakers, the car dealers, the Western States Petroleum Association.

But both the automakers and dealers, while still leery of mandates, have softened their opposition of late. That’s because the big carmakers, such as Ford, are going all-in on electric themselves, driven in part by the need to cater to the European market and the West Coast of the U.S. that are both hellbent to move away from gas.

“We support the goal of all-electric vehicle sales by 2030 … and remain committed to making the investments to meet that goal, and the potential 2035 targets set by California,” the Washington State Auto Dealers Association said in an email when I asked for their reaction.

Automakers said that meeting a hard date of 2035 date will be “extremely challenging,” but called the transition to electric transportation “game-changing.”

Recently in Congress, a strange bedfellows group of the big automakers, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, unions and electric utilities, formed an alliance to lobby for an electric car-charging network and other electric car incentives.

“I think for the carmakers, they see the writing on the wall,” Metz said. “They don’t want to design two versions of every vehicle, they’d rather just pick a path. Plus Tesla has been eating their lunch — that might have had something to do with it.”

The hurdles to replacing entire auto fleets in a dozen years or so are gargantuan. It might be technically impossible — building the charging networks, the battery supply chain, the energy grid.

“Will the critical mineral mining and processing happen in the U.S.? Can customers afford the vehicles? Do all communities have the same access to level 2 home charging as single-family homeowners?” pressed the automaker association.

All good questions, says Metz. All solvable, though, by a combination of market forces and government help, and all why it’s proposed in phases. People will be driving gas cars for decades as society adapts.

Washington has 8 million registered vehicles — mostly cars, light-duty trucks and motorcycles. Only about 100,000 of these are electric, which is 1.2 percent. California, far ahead of us, passed 1 million “zero-emission vehicles” this year. That’s about 3 percent of its combustion-engine fleet.

I challenged Metz with these stats. He responded that some cities in California have already begun to ban new gas stations. This past week, Santa Rosa, population 180,000, bigger than Bellevue, became the largest city in the nation to do so.

“Change comes in big waves,” Metz said. “I admit I’m surprised at the pace of this one. But it’s starting to happen. It’s happening with enough forces aligned behind it that you can now be legitimately asking yourself: When will the last gas station in Seattle turn out its lights?”

Are we getting ahead of ourselves? The first gas station hasn’t turned out its lights yet, let alone the last.

But nobody would have predicted that two archenemies of the past 50 years, the environmentalists and Detroit, would somehow find themselves rallying to the same side. So ahead of ourselves or no, here we go.

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