The red-state backlash against electric vehicles is incoherent — and gaining steam

The red-state backlash against electric vehicles is incoherent — and gaining steam

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Republicans in Wyoming and Virginia are trying to stymie the transition to EVs, but their motivations are a confusing mashup of anti-Biden posturing and grievance politics.

A Tesla Supercharger in Virginia, where the state’s governor blocked an EV battery project because of its ties to China.
Photo by Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Remember when “getting ICE’d” was a thing? A few years ago, it was not uncommon to spot internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicles deliberately parked in electric vehicle-only spots, usually near an EV charging station, effectively blocking access to that charger. It was an extremely stupid and anti-social way for aggrieved gas-powered car owners to express contempt for these new, less-polluting vehicles.

Now a bunch of Republicans are taking the concept of “getting ICE’d” to the next logical conclusion. Not content to simply obstruct a parking spot, they are instead looking to stymie the growth of EVs through ill-considered policy decisions. Their reasons are varied: some are trying to protect the oil and gas industry, while others simply want to stick it to Joe Biden or “own the libs.” But they are part of a growing trend of red states that are, in essence, parking their big, gas-powered vehicles in the path of progress.

The latest example comes to us from Wyoming, where a group of Republican state lawmakers proposed a bill that would end EV sales by 2035. They characterize EVs as a “misadventure” that will gobble up massive amounts of electric power and threaten the incumbent oil and gas industry, which employs thousands of workers in the state.

“The proliferation of electric vehicles at the expense of gas-powered vehicles will have deleterious impacts on Wyoming’s communities and will be detrimental to Wyoming’s economy and the ability for the country to efficiently engage in commerce,” the bill reads. No mention is made of the “deleterious impact” of gas-powered vehicles through carbon emissions, nor the negative effects of extracting that gas from the land.

For a political party that purports to love freedom as much as they do, it’s a baffling position to actively seek to limit the purchasing choices of the American car buyer. And the bill’s lead sponsor seems to have only realized that in hindsight, telling The Washington Post that he doesn’t really want to do what the bill he introduced would actually do.

“I don’t have a problem with electric vehicles at all.” Wyoming State Senator James Anderson told the paper. He said he didn’t really want to ban EV sales, even though the bill he introduced is literally called “Phasing out new electric vehicle sales by 2035.”

Instead, Anderson claims he was just trying to send a message “that we’re not happy with the states that are outlawing our vehicles” — a reference to California and others that have proposed phasing out the sale of gas-powered vehicles.

Performative politics can get you headlines, but it can also cost your state a lot of jobs. Take Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, for example, who just put the kibosh on a proposed Ford battery plant in his state because of the involvement of a Chinese company.

Ford pitched building a $3.5 billion factory in one of the poorest parts of Virginia, part of a swath of new battery plants across the Deep South. The project would have created up to 2,500 new jobs building lithium iron phosphate batteries for Ford’s electric vehicles.

But Youngkin intervened because of the involvement of CATL, a Chinese battery manufacturer and one of the biggest producers of EV batteries in the world. “While Ford is an iconic American company, it became clear that this proposal would serve as a front for the Chinese Communist party, which could compromise our economic security and Virginians’ personal privacy,” a spokesperson for the governor told The Richmond Dispatch.

Calling CATL a “front” for the CCP is overly simplistic. The battery company isn’t state-owned, but it does benefit from lavish subsidies and a soft regulatory environment from Beijing that has helped fuel its growth globally. Chinese companies have cornered the market on EV batteries — a fact that will likely make it extremely difficult to realize the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act’s EV tax credit, which requires battery materials to be sourced from North America. (Or not? TBD.)

There is a long history of politicians cutting off their nose to spite their face, but Youngkin seems determined to obstruct economic growth in his own state to appear more anti-China than his rivals as he vies for the Republican nomination for president in 2024.

To be sure, there is little coherence to the backlash against EVs. It’s a melange of anti-Biden / anti-California posturing mixed with concern trolling over the environmental impact of mining for battery minerals (a real issue but less detrimental to the environment than the collective tailpipe emissions of all our cars), with a dash of grievance politics over “socialist” state governments dictating what kind of car you’re allowed to buy. Tucker Carlson hit all these points in a rambling segment last year, in which he called EVs “terrible for the environment” while also managing to bash California Governor Gavin Newsom for his use of a private jet.

For over a century, car buyers have only had one choice. It was ICE all down the line. And now that there’s finally a new option — electric powertrains — right-wing media and politicians are trying to muddy the waters by branding EVs as the vehicle choice for the elite. It’s not a difficult task: EVs are expensive, and sales tend to be concentrated in liberal states. But that is changing as more companies release new models with more affordable price tags and more conservative-friendly pedigrees (see: Ford F-150 Lightning, Chevy Silverado EV, and GMC Sierra EV).

It’s unclear whether Republicans stand to gain anything from all their posturing. A broad swath of Americans support incentives for EVs but are on the fence as to whether they would buy one themselves. And on the question of phasing out the sale of gas-powered vehicles, the political divide is stark: Democrats largely support such policies, while Republicans do not.

Not every Republican is so short-sighted as to turn down a good opportunity when it presents itself. They may not be outright supportive of efforts to phase out gas-car sales, but they are eager to promote and expand the EV industry. Indiana’s Republican governor, for example, has sponsored research, traveled to Asia to spur business, and handed out millions of taxpayer dollars to manufacturers, according to Yahoo.

They want the economic benefits of a growing industry but still want to be seen by their constituents as sticking it to their opponents. Indiana’s attorney general is one of 14 Republican AGs who have sued the Biden administration seeking to block California’s right to set its own emissions standards.

And then there’s Elon Musk, the king of EV sales whose acquisition of Twitter and online antics have weirdly done more to soften conservative backlash against EVs than anyone else. It’s doubtful that Republicans will champion his efforts to decarbonize transportation as readily as they do his commitment to “free speech” online, but at best, his new prominence among conservatives will complicate their feelings towards EVs. (As my colleague Liz Lopatto has so ably pointed out, Musk’s public persona seems disproportionately influenced by Texas Republicans, whom he relies on for subsidies for his companies.)

It was inevitable that EVs would get sucked into our larger culture wars. But it’s unlikely that a few scattered Republicans can derail the momentum that EVs have been building over the past few years. It would be nice if their objections centered on real concerns, like the need to reduce driving overall, or the worrisome trend in big, heavy EVs requiring obnoxiously heavy batteries. You really want to own the libs? How about legislating against the Biden-approved Hummer EV?

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Andrew J. Hawkins

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