In Minnesota, a fight is playing out over electric vehicles. It got so heated this week that Republican lawmakers threatened to not pass a budget that would allow parks, zoos, and museums—you know, largely outdoor places people can congregate safely if not vaccinated or live their best post-pandemic lives—to open this summer.
At issue is whether Minnesota will adopt auto emissions standards based on California’s, a move already made by 15 other states. Those standards are stricter than the current federal standards. The move was first proposed by Democratic Gov. Tim Walz in 2019. Adoption of the standards would also mandate that more electric vehicles be sold in the state, all moves that would help Minnesota meet its climate goal of reducing emissions 80% by 2050.
Yet the issue has become a “political football,” said Justin Fay, the director of government affairs at Fresh Energy, a nonprofit that advocates for clean energy in the state. As part of the rule making process, the new standards are before an administrative court. A decision from the judge on whether they pass legal muster is expected Friday, just 10 days before a contentious state legislature session adjourns.
“We’re coming down to the wire, and that’s why emotions are running higher than usual,” Fay said.
The scuffle over the state’s parks happened Tuesday as both the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate hammered out details for budgets. In the state Senate version of a budget for Minnesota’s natural resources departments, Republicans had inserted a provision that would essentially block the clean car standards from coming into law. During the budget conversations, GOP politicians made it clear that that provision was very important for them—and that they wouldn’t pass a budget for other environmental considerations in the state, from funding the Department of Natural Resources to state parks, science museums, and zoos, without dragging the clean cars rule down first.
As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, after Republican state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, the chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said he wouldn’t pass any budget that didn’t have the anti-clean cars provision attached, state Rep. Rick Hansen, his Democratic counterpart in the House, asked for clarification to confirm he would block funding for parks and other institutions and agencies.
“That’s exactly correct,” said Ingebrigtsen. “I think we can move forward, but it’s going to have to be with that understanding.”
The state parks see some 9.7 million visitors in an average year. After tourism basically flatlined last year, the risk of park closures for a second year right as the U.S. appears to be getting a grip on the pandemic and reopening would be devastating to local communities. Perhaps sensing the risk of using them as a bargaining chip, Ingebrigtsen tried to wriggle out of the situation his party created.
“I never said anything about a shutdown,” he told the committee Thursday (despite the fact that he, well, kind of did). The Senate’s budget has also since been amended to create a two-year moratorium on adopting the California standards, rather than chucking them altogether.
Why Republicans are fixated on blocking clean cars appears to be largely anti-California sentiment. The idea that Minnesota would hand over the keys, so to speak, to a state that’s often coded as the country’s liberal bastion has become a boogeyman not just in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but Republican-controlled states and allied industries around the U.S.
The Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association campaign opposing the rule is called Drive Away California Cars, and its website gravely intones “[w]e will only be able to do what California tells us.” (It also includes a scaremongering line that “even BBQ grills” could face regulations if this rule goes through.) Auto dealers have generally been resistant to electric vehicle companies like Tesla that don’t follow the dealership model and pose a threat to dealerships’ political clout and bottom line.
The agency responsible for writing the rule said it has also been battling misinformation spread by some legislators, from the misguided belief that Minnesotans would be forced to buy electric vehicles to the idea that the law would apply to farm vehicles. Many politicians have also seemed to hint at a culture clash between electric vehicles and some of Minnesota’s rural communities.
In contrast, many of the world’s major automakers have said they support the tougher standards. California is the largest car market in the country, and the states that use its strict standards make up around 35% of new passenger vehicle sales; manufacturing different types of cars for different markets is a headache, so the more states that opt for the strict rule, the better. With the rest of the world also moving towards EVs and more and more emissions legislation being passed, it’s pretty clear to manufacturers that their futures hinge on making their cars as clean as possible. At the local level, Fay noted that while the Minnesota Automobile Dealers’ Association has driven a lot of opposition on the ground, the Virginia Automobile Dealers’ Association was actually part of a coalition that helped that state adopt the new standards.
Virginia adopted the California rules in March, and New Mexico and Nevada are also hammering out the details for their own adoption. With the Trump administration—which put up an enormous fight with California over the standards—gone and the Biden administration indicating that stricter federal standards are probably on the way, there’s a wave of states stepping up to the plate to sign up for California’s version.
The issues that played out this week in Minnesota—especially around how GOP lawmakers paint electric vehicles as a bad fit for rural red and purple states— will undoubtedly be on display nationally as more and more states get going on legislation to encourage electric vehicle use. But Fay said that even if the administrative judge rejects the law Friday, it would probably just be sent back to the agency for minor drafting tweaks. One way or another, it does seem that Minnesota will adopt the California standards.
“It’s hard to know what other dramatic turns we have in store [with the legislature] are,” Fay said. “but we do know that the result is the rules are going to be final, and cleaner cars are coming to Minnesota.”