Youngkin Pledges to Decouple Virginia from California Vehicle Emissions Standards by End of 2024

A 2021 law passed by the Virginia General Assembly tied the state to California’s more stringent vehicle emissions standards. But does it apply to an even stricter pathway adopted by California in 2022?

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers remarks to the media following the adjournment of the 2024 Virginia General Assembly on March 14 in Richmond, Va. Credit: Minh Connors/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Gov. Glenn Youngkin delivers remarks to the media following the adjournment of the 2024 Virginia General Assembly on March 14 in Richmond, Va. Credit: Minh Connors/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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RICHMOND, Va.—Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has pledged to return Virginia to federal vehicle emissions standards, three years after the state’s Democratic-led legislature passed a law committing the state to follow more stringent emissions rules set by California. 

“The idea that government should be telling Virginians what kind of car they must drive is just simply wrong,” said Youngkin Wednesday afternoon at a press conference held at a Toyota dealership south of Richmond. “The idea that unelected bureaucrats in California should be deciding for Virginians what car they drive is wrong.” 

But environmental groups say the governor’s move is an illegal overreach of his powers, one that attempts to circumvent a law he finds distasteful but that his party has so far failed to undo in the legislature. 

“It’s interesting that after three years of trying to get the General Assembly to repeal the law, they suddenly decided that the General Assembly doesn’t have to repeal the law. They can just do it themselves,” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which previously lobbied for passage of the legislation.

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As part of a broader Democratic push to reduce carbon emissions, the Virginia General Assembly in 2021 voted to join more than a dozen other states in following vehicle standards set by California, which under the Clean Air Act is allowed to institute its own rules for limiting pollution from tailpipes. 

Those rules impose binding targets for not only reducing emissions from gas-powered cars but also increasing the number of electric vehicles sold in a state each year. In Virginia, they went into effect this January after the end of a federally imposed two-year waiting period. 

Federal law gives states the option of choosing either federal or California standards to limit vehicle emissions but prohibits them from crafting other legal frameworks. 

Virginia Republicans have balked at the California standards, particularly after the California Air Resources Board in August 2022 rolled out an even stricter pathway to emissions reductions known as Advanced Clean Cars II. 

Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares, who has previously said that Virginia is bound by the 2021 law adopting California’s standards, produced an official advisory opinion that says while Virginia may have been bound to the earlier California standards, state law and regulations do not require adoption of the more stringent framework introduced in August 2022. 

Under those more stringent 2022 standards, 35 percent of model year 2026 cars sold in participating states would need to be zero emission, and the sale of new gas-powered cars would be banned beginning in 2035. (CARB rules do not apply to used car sales.) Manufacturers that don’t comply with the targets could face fines. 

The Youngkin administration has criticized the new timeline as “unworkable” and an unjust restriction of personal rights, pointing out that only 9 percent of vehicles sold in Virginia last year were electric. 

“When today 90 percent of automobiles in Virginia that are purchased aren’t electric vehicles, to turn around and mandate that 35 percent of them have to be electric vehicles imposes an extraordinary economic burden on our dealers and on Virginians,” Youngkin said. 

Pollard said the reality is more nuanced: Car manufacturers can both bank and pool credits to help meet the new targets, and no manufacturer has been fined for failing to meet them since the Advanced Clean Cars program began in California in 2012. 

Nevertheless, the new goals have caused concern among Virginia car dealers. While the influential Virginia Automobile Dealers Association threw its support behind the 2021 law joining Virginia to California, on Wednesday its members declared that a longer timeline was needed to transition away from gas-powered cars.

“While the interest in electric vehicles is rising, it’s not yet at the level where these unreasonable California mandates expect them to be,” said Tim Pohanka, a Northern Virginia auto dealer and VADA legislative chair, at Wednesday’s press conference. “Forcing EV demand before the market is ready could have detrimental effects on both consumers and dealers.” 

But Pollard said the Youngkin administration has offered no viable alternative to the standards.

“Transportation is the number one source of climate pollution,” he said. “There hasn’t been any serious proposals to show how else we would get this type of reduction in tailpipe pollution.” 

Youngkin on Wednesday downplayed criticisms that decoupling from the California standards meant that the administration isn’t being proactive about environmental issues and praised electric vehicles, which he said he supports but does not believe should be mandated. 

“The federal government emission standards are incredibly aggressive, and they do require manufacturers to deliver fleets at a substantial continued reduction of emissions over time,” he said. “And I will bet on American innovation every single day that they will find a way to meet it.”

‘May’ vs. ‘Shall’ 

Despite Republicans’ unhappiness with the California standards, officials previously concluded legislation was necessary to return the state to the federal standards. In August 2022, an assistant attorney general penned an email concluding Virginia was “bound” by the 2021 law. Decoupling the state from the California standards would require “an amendment or repeal of the mandating legislation,” he wrote. 

Attorney General Miyares’ office expressed a similar view at the time, saying the law “binds Virginia to California’s vehicle emission regulations” and urging the General Assembly to repeal it. 

But in the official advisory opinion he issued this week, at the request of Youngkin and Senate Minority Leader Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), Miyares took a starkly different view, finding that state law and regulations do not require adoption of the more stringent California framework. 

Because Virginia’s 2021 law and related regulations “reference code sections” of California law that will no longer be operable after Dec. 31, Virginia’s tie to the California standards “expires” at the end of the year, he said Wednesday. 

Miyares’ argument hinges on the first line of the 2021 law, which says the state’s Air Pollution Control Board “may adopt by regulation and enforce any model year standards relating to the control of emissions from new motor vehicles.” While that language permits the board to adopt the California standards, he said, it doesn’t mandate that it must. 

In his opinion, the attorney general acknowledges the law continues: It says the board “shall promulgate final regulations for an Advanced Clean Cars Program” and that it “shall periodically amend any regulations … to ensure continued consistency of such standards with the Clean Air Act.” 

But, Miyares wrote, “the word ‘shall’ is not to be interpreted in isolation.” Because the mandatory language follows the statement that the board “may” adopt such regulations, he concluded that those orders are only “conditionally mandatory at most.” 

That view is a departure from how the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has previously interpreted the law. A December 2021 presentation to the Air Pollution Control Board, which occurred a little over a month before Youngkin took office, noted the Virginia rule “automatically updates” to conform with California changes. 

But in a Wednesday memorandum, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Travis Voyles wrote that “Virginia would have needed to take affirmative action to” adopt the new regulations. Because the board has not yet done so, the state must decouple from California by the end of the year, he informed agencies.

Environmental groups like the Virginia League of Conservation Voters drew parallels between the abandonment of the California standards and Youngkin’s efforts to withdraw Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate carbon market that the state joined when it was under Democratic control in 2021. After Republicans repeatedly failed to get legislation pulling Virginia out of RGGI through Democratic-controlled committees, Youngkin moved to do so through the regulatory process. That decision is currently being challenged in Floyd County Circuit Court, with the Southern Environmental Law Center representing several opponents.

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“Taking away one of our best tools to protect Virginians from power plant pollution wasn’t enough. Now, Governor Youngkin wants Virginians to keep breathing tailpipe pollution too, despite laws on the books mandating the Commonwealth to tackle both of these major drivers of the climate crisis and detriments to public health,” said Michael Town, executive director of the League, in a statement. 

Pollard, too, said the decision is part of a “pattern of executive overreach.” 

“I think the General Assembly has made their decisions very clear,” the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney said. “I also think it’s just bad policy.” 

Miyares, though, said his office was willing to defend the decision. 

“We can obviously debate this in the court, but our office is very confident in both our in-depth legal analysis and our conclusions,” he said. 

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