Public input session aims to get out ahead of electric vehicles objections 

DEM event comes after initial criticism, confusion over new emissions rule 

By: - May 18, 2023 4:43 pm

Electric car in charging Rhode Island plans to join seven states, including Massachusetts, in adopting a policy that would require all new cars imported for sale in Rhode Island by 2035 to be non-gas powered. (Getty image)

Gas-powered cars aren’t being run off the road: You can still drive them and buy them used.

This was the message driven home by Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) officials, who laid out a dizzying array of tables, graphs and bullet points at a virtual information session Thursday. The educational and public input event focused on Gov. Dan McKee’s proposal to accelerate electric vehicle sales while cutting tailpipe emissions.  

Which has hit a few bumps in the road, already. 

Indeed, McKee’s proposal to gradually phase out new, gas-powered cars, trucks and buses from the state was met with swift social media backlash, much of it rooted in the disconnect between what the rule would actually do versus what some people think it means. 

The regulations, first adopted by California last year and now spread to other states including Massachusetts and Vermont, force manufacturers to transition to only zero-emission vehicles like electric and hybrid cars by 2035 (with a 2040 deadline for trucks and buses). 

Gov. Dan McKee has proposed incrementally increasing electric vehicle sales and phasing out gas-powered cars and trucks, mirroring rules first adopted by California. (Courtesy R.I. Department of Environmental Management)

“This is the next logical step,” Chelsea Priest, an air quality and climate change specialist with DEM, said, touting the importance of adopting stricter tailpipe emissions standards for manufacturers in meeting the state’s decarbonization mandates. The car emissions rule alone is estimated to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by one-third, which is crucial to meeting the fast-approaching 2030 benchmarks in the state’s Act on Climate law.

Point by point, the presentation sought to head off a litany of anticipated objections: to the cost of electric cars, availability of charging stations and demand on the state’s aging electric grid, among others. 

Health benefits from cleaner air

Reducing pollution also brings health benefits, saving an estimated $60.7 million in avoided hospitalization and emergency room visits and deaths, according to data presented by DEM. As for the price tag on electric cars – still out of reach for most drivers – increasing the supply will only drive costs down, Priest said.

While Rhode Island’s electric grid and meters are aging, Rhode Island Energy has already committed to a series of improvements with the transition to more renewable energy in mind. As for availability of charging stations, the state is poised to build another 500 charging ports over the next five years (on top of the 300 already available) thanks to an influx of federal funding, according to Allison Archambault, supervising air quality specialist for DEM.

This is the next logical step.

– Chelsea Priest, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management air quality and climate change specialist

Proposed regulations to curtail tailpipe emissions while boosting electric car sales are critical to reaching state decarbonization mandates. (Courtesy R.I. Department of Environmental Management)

One topic not addressed by Priest: the drain on state gas tax revenue, projected to sap $44.7 million from the state over the next 12 years according to analysis by Syracuse University students.

Barry Schiller, a former board member for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, questioned how the state would fill this financial hole which is a critical revenue source for RIPTA and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation.

“RIPTA already faces a fiscal cliff,” Schiller said. “It would seem to be we have got to  make up RIPTA’s fiscal cliff as a higher priority than subsidizing purchases of electric vehicles mostly by well to-do-people who don’t need the subsidy.”

The misperception that only wealthier people can afford electric cars was also addressed by DEM. Priest highlighted a specific credit program included in the proposed rule that would incentivize manufacturers to offer discounted new or used electric vehicles to low-income communities.

Ken Payne, former director of the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, pointed to a secondary benefit of electric cars in lessening utility bills for low-income families.

“It can be tremendously advantageous to low-income communities but it has to be thought through from their perspective as well,” Payne said.

Governor’s timing raised concerns 

Noticeably absent from the reactions voiced Thursday were the anti-regulation types of objections raised by Republican lawmakers last week.

“Rhode Islanders will not relinquish to unrealistic deadlines, nor have their consumer freedoms abolished to the whims of a steering committee that is out of touch with their day to day struggles,” House Minority Leader Mike Chippendale, of Foster, said in a statement on May 10. 

Rep. Brian Newberry, a Smithfield Republican, also tweeted, “If EVs make economic and practical sense then the market will make this happen.  If they do not, no amount of government interference will.”

Chippendale in a subsequent interview said the close timing of the electric vehicles announcement with a separate executive order from McKee’s office strengthening emissions goals for state agencies added to the confusion.

“There was a conflation of the two,” Chippendale said. “Some folks were seeing it as the governor releasing an executive order that mandated migration toward electric vehicles.” 

McKee’s office did not respond to questions for comment about perceived confusion over the timing of the two announcements.

Other states including Massachusetts, Vermont and New York have already adopted the stricter emissions standards being proposed in Rhode Island. (Courtesy R.I. Department of Environmental Management)

Amanda Barker, a policy associate for Green Energy Consumers Alliance, was not surprised by the wave of criticism or confusion.

This has happened in every state,” Barker said in an interview on Wednesday. “People are always going to be up in arms when the government has some sort of regulation on something.”

Barker added that she heard more support than opposition to the proposal. 

And the rule is far from final. The public input session Thursday was an informal, preliminary measure to gather feedback, with additional opportunities for public comment when the formal rulemaking process begins, Priest said.

The DEM is also accepting online comments on the proposal through May 24.

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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.