In what would be the nation’s most ambitious climate regulation, the proposal is designed to ensure that electric cars make up the majority of new U.S. auto sales by 2032.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is planning some of the most stringent auto pollution limits in the world, designed to ensure that all-electric cars make up as much as 67 percent of new passenger vehicles sold in the country by 2032, according to two people familiar with the matter.
That would represent a quantum leap for the United States — where just 5.8 percent of vehicles sold last year were all-electric — and would exceed President Biden’s earlier ambitions to have all-electric cars account for half of those sold in the country by 2030.
It would be the federal government’s most aggressive climate regulation and would propel the United States to the front of the global effort to slash the greenhouse gases generated by cars, a major driver of climate change. The European Union has already enacted vehicle emissions standards that are expected to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. Canada and Britain have proposed standards similar to the European model.
At the same time, the proposed regulation would pose a significant challenge for automakers. Nearly every major car company has already invested heavily in electric vehicles, but few have committed to the levels envisioned by the Biden administration. And many have faced supply chain problems that have held up production. Even manufacturers who are enthusiastic about electric models are unsure whether consumers will buy enough of them to make up the majority of new car sales within a decade.
The action from the E.P.A. is likely to hearten climate activists, who are angry over the Biden administration’s recent decision to approve an enormous oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska. Some inside the administration argue that speeding up a transition to renewable energy, with most Americans driving electric vehicles, would lessen demand for oil drilled in Alaska or elsewhere.
Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to announce the proposed limits on tailpipe emissions on Wednesday in Washington. It was originally set for Detroit, but the agency cited scheduling conflicts in moving the location. The requirements would be intended to ensure that electric cars represent between 54 and 60 percent of all new cars sold in the United States by 2030, with that figure rising to 64 to 67 percent of new car sales by 2032, according to the people familiar with the details, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information had not been made public.
Rapidly speeding up the adoption of electric vehicles in the United States would require other significant changes, including the construction of millions of new electric vehicle charging stations, an overhaul of electric grids to accommodate the power needs of those chargers and securing supplies of minerals and other materials needed for batteries.
The proposed regulation, which would go through a public comment period and could be altered by the government before becoming final, is sure to be met with legal challenges. It could also become an issue in the 2024 presidential campaign, as a future administration could undo or weaken it.
“This is a massive undertaking,” said John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents large U.S. and foreign automakers. “It is nothing short of a complete transformation of the automotive industrial base and the automotive market.”
In a statement released Friday night, Maria Michalos, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., did not confirm the new targets but said the agency was working on new standards as directed by the president to “accelerate the transition to a zero-emissions transportation future, protecting people and the planet.” The new regulations would come on the heels of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which has helped stoke demand for electric vehicles by providing up to $7,500 in tax incentives for car buyers as well as billions in incentives for battery manufacturing and critical mineral processing and mining. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases generated by the United States, the second biggest polluter on the planet behind China. Rapidly phasing out gasoline-burning cars with electric models would help Mr. Biden achieve his pledge to cut the country’s emissions in half by 2030 and effectively eliminate them by the middle of the century. The proposed auto emissions rule is even more demanding than the target laid out by Mr. Biden in a White House speech in 2021. Speaking on the South Lawn and surrounded by a line of electric vehicles, including a Ford F-150 Lightning, a Chevrolet Bolt EV and a Jeep Wrangler, Mr. Biden issued an executive order calling for federal policies to ensure that half of new cars sold would be all-electric by 2030. “There’s a vision of the future that is now beginning to happen, a future of the automobile industry that is electric — battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, fuel cell electric,” Mr. Biden said at the time.
But climate policy experts have said that the transition to zero-emissions vehicles must move faster to avert planetary disaster. A 2021 report by the International Energy Agency found that nations would have to stop sales of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 to keep average global temperatures from increasing by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels. Beyond that point, scientists say, the effects of catastrophic heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures and species extinction would become significantly harder for humanity to handle. The planet has already warmed by an average of about 1.1 degrees Celsius.
While the market has begun the transition to electric vehicles, government action is needed to make sure the electric car revolution is completed, said Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research organization. “Everyone who’s watched this movie knows that the market is fickle,” Mr. Kodjak said. “What if there’s a market downturn? What if the battery minerals don’t pan out? Without these firm standards that have a clear trajectory on timing, none of the players can be sure that this will happen.”
The proposed rule would not mandate that electric vehicles make up a certain number or percentage of sales. Instead, it would require that automakers make sure the total number of vehicles they sell each year did not exceed a certain emissions limit. That limit would be so strict that it would force carmakers to ensure that two thirds of the vehicles they sold were all-electric by 2032, according to the people familiar with the matter. Experts say the proposed regulation would synchronize federal action with a move by California to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars after 2035. Even manufacturers that chafe against regulations say that they would prefer to deal with one set of rules, rather than meet specifications from California that differ from federal requirements.
But plenty of hurdles remain for a smooth transition to electric vehicles. One of the biggest is the need for millions of electric vehicle charging stations. Experts say it will not be possible for electric vehicles to go from niche to mainstream without making electric charging stations as ubiquitous as corner gas stations. A 2021 infrastructure law provided $7.5 billion to build a network of about 500,000 charging stations along federal highways, but a January report from S&P Global concluded that millions were needed.
The transformation could also spell economic dislocation for American autoworkers, as electric vehicles require fewer than half as many laborers to build as gasoline-powered cars.
“We’ve dealt with the loss of jobs before through technology, but when you talk about the speed of this, it’s hard to fathom that we won’t lose jobs,” Mark DePaoli, a leader of United Auto Workers Local 600, said in a recent interview at the union headquarters near the Ford Rouge manufacturing plant in Dearborn, Mich.
Job losses in the auto industry could have political consequences for Mr. Biden, who will need voters in industrialized states like Michigan and Ohio if he chooses to run for a second term. As they have worked on the new regulation, administration officials have held weekly telephone calls with union leaders to try to reassure them.
Mr. Biden, a self-described “car guy” who campaigned as “the most pro-union guy you’ve ever seen,” has repeatedly tried to present the transition as an economic opportunity, emphasizing that it will create new jobs in a clean energy economy.
“We’re going to build a different future with one — one with clean energy, good-paying jobs,” Mr. Biden said in a speech last summer. “We have to keep retaining and recruiting building trades and union electricians for jobs in wind, solar, hydrogen, nuclear, creating even more and better jobs.”
Mr. Biden has worked to ensure that only American-made electric vehicles would qualify for tax incentives provided by the Inflation Reduction Act — although a requirement that they be assembled by union workers was dropped.