Editorials

Should California extend its low-emission vehicle rebates program?

Yes: Rebates a prudent way to save world from climate change

California Gov. Jerry Brown may soon sign legislation extending cash rebates given to residents who buy low-emission vehicles from Tesla and other automakers.

While the bill’s details are still evolving, the governor should in principle sign off on the subsidies because they will further spur California’s transition to a clean-energy economy and improve the state’s air quality.

Addressing climate change is the chief motivation for the rebates, which have been in place for years and would be beefed up through the pending legislation. With a populous coastline and dependence on seasonal rains, California is particularly vulnerable to the dangers posed by global warming, including rising sea levels and more-frequent droughts and wildfires. Reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions would help not only California but, given the Golden State’s large population, the rest of the world as well.

Among low-emission modes of transit, electric vehicles in particular present a big opportunity to reduce carbon pollution.

And while the use of most EVs does result in some emissions — the electricity used to power them has to come from somewhere, including fossil fuel-burning plants —such vehicles are, all things considered, far friendlier to the environment than traditional cars, a 2015 Union of Concerned Scientists analysis showed. That’s not to mention California’s requirement that utilities in the state to get half their power from renewable sources by 2030, with tougher standards anticipated in the future.

Ultimately, these purchase rebates help create a robust market for EVs and push the transportation sector into better participating in California’s broader transition to clean energy.

Air quality is a key concern.

For decades, vehicle tailpipe emissions have contributed to smog and other toxic air pollution conditions, which are especially harmful to young children, the elderly, and those with asthma and other lung function impairments. Shifting the mix of vehicles on California’s roads toward EVs has become a necessity.

And undoubtedly, the rest of the world stands to benefit from California’s climate leadership.

Decreasing the demand for oil will reduce the need for risky exploration projects and lessen the chances of environmental disasters like the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, supporting the growth of California’s electric car industry is an investment in the state’s clean-tech sector, which will occupy an increasingly important role in the global economy in years to come.

California’s rebates send an unambiguous signal that, even with the Trump administration’s rejection of the Paris climate agreement, the state is still committed to fostering a thriving clean-tech industry.

Ultimately, California’s low-emission vehicle rebates will support three critical outcomes: lowering carbon emissions harmful to the environment, reducing smog and other forms of air pollution, and boosting economic activity in the state’s clean-energy industry.

That seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Tseming Yang is a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law and a former deputy general counsel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Readers may write him at Santa Clara Law, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA, 95053.

No: Taxpayers shouldn't subsidize overpriced Teslas

After Tesla sells its 200,000th vehicle, consumers will no longer be able to claim a $7,500-per-vehicle federal tax credit for purchasing one.

But fear not. California's climate-crazy Legislature is coming to the rescue.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and state legislators plan to extend a low-emission vehicle rebate program there by passing a new $3 billion subsidy package that would, among other things, make up for the soon-to-end federal rebate.

Taxpayers should be outraged.

Despite the federal government in 2009 providing Tesla with a $465 million low-interest loan to develop an affordable electric vehicle and billions of dollars in tax credits given to buyers, Tesla has continued to turn out $110,000 luxury cars designed for and marketed to millionaires.

Such buyers could obviously afford to pay the full freight but are instead able fund their lifestyle purchases at the expense of poor and middle-income households.

Contrary to popular belief, electric vehicles do not represent a new technology in need of government support to get off the ground. The first electric vehicles were created as early as 1828, 50 years before Germany’s Karl Benz put the first gasoline-powered vehicles on the road. Gas-powered cars won out because they were more affordable, powerful, comfortable and reliable, and could go long distances between fueling.

Despite billions in recent government support, today’s electric vehicles still can’t compete.

In 2016, only 159,333 electric vehicles were sold in the United States — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the 17.55 million vehicles sold nationwide.

That hasn’t stopped the government largesse, including state incentives and charging networks.

A 2015 study from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the National Bureau of Economic Research found the richest 20 percent of Americans received 90 percent of the hundreds of millions of dollars given in taxpayer subsidies for electric vehicles.

Tesla, despite heavy government support, regularly misses sales and production targets and has lost hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The automaker has already warned there could be manufacturing and delivery delays for its lower-priced Model 3, which will still cost $30,000-$50,000.

Even if one believes humans are causing climate change, subsidizing billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s electric-car dreams will do little to reduce carbon dioxide.

The switch to electric vehicles will simply shift emissions from the tailpipe to the smoke stack as more natural gas- and coal-fired plants will be needed to keep EVs charged. In addition, millions of acres of land will need to be destroyed to mine the rare metals used in such vehicles’ batteries and electronic parts. And millions of tons of greenhouse gases will be spewed, mostly in China, in the mining, processing and shipping processes.

California’s tax credit is nothing more than welfare for the well-to-do, and it’s time to end it.

H. Sterling Burnett is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Ill. Readers may write him at Heartland, 3939 N. Wilke Drive, Arlington Heights, IL, 60004, or email him at hburnett@heartland.org.

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