I Spent My Career Making New York Air and Water Cleaner. Our State Legislature’s Plan Won’t Help.

By Jerry Pallante | April 19, 2021

New York has some of the lowest levels of air pollution in the country. That might come as a surprise, given the stereotypes of traffic congestion in New York City and industrial operations in other parts of the state. But we’ve worked hard over the years to improve our state’s air quality through smart clean air laws and regulations, and in many ways we have been successful.

I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement – there’s always more we can do – but a pair of bills currently making their way through our state legislature aren’t going to get us where we need to go.

Assembly Bill A.4302 and Senate Bill S.2758, which would mandate that only zero-emission or all electric light-duty vehicles be sold in our state beginning in 2035, may be well-intentioned. But our legislators don’t seem to have assessed what all of the different technologies offer to accomplish their environmental goals. Nor do they seem to have considered the practical implications and economic consequences of the legislation.

For decades, a vehicle’s efficiency has been measured in miles per gallon, and vehicles have been regulated on their emissions from the tailpipe, but that’s just one piece of the overall picture.

If you look at a vehicle’s energy consumption and environmental impact based on its lifecycle impacts – meaning, the emissions produced during vehicle component production, assembly, operation and disposal – you can see its real ability to reduce emissions.

We call them “zero-emission vehicles,” and electric vehicles do not have tailpipe emissions. But they still rely on industrial processes and excavation of rare earth minerals, both of which use fossil fuel inputs that generate environmental impacts. Nor do they look at where these materials are coming from or where the batteries are being manufactured. Additionally, the electric vehicles must charge on the power grid.

At the same time, today’s new cars are already more environmentally friendly than they have ever been – a whopping 99 percent cleaner compared to 1970, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Further, the fuel economy of passenger vehicles have increased 29 percent, and their related carbon dioxide emissions have dropped 24 percent since 2004.

The legislature should know that emissions generated from advanced internal combustion engine vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles are on par with those from electric vehicles when compared over their entire lifecycles.

Now, that doesn’t mean electric vehicles shouldn’t play a role alongside internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles as we find the climate solutions that work for our state. But without overwhelming environmental benefits, we really need to consider the consequences of forcing them on New York families.

For many families, electric vehicles are simply too expensive – certainly more than traditional gas-powered vehicles. Mandating that they are the only vehicle available for sale in-state would place a significant and undue burden particularly on low- and middle-income New Yorkers, many of whom could face additional costs with fewer ICE vehicles available to them.

And this doesn’t even account for the extensive charging infrastructure electric vehicles would require, such as the 55,000 chargers the Public Service Commission estimates we would need, at a cost to New Yorkers upwards of $700 million.

Bottom line: state laws should not restrict consumer choice without understanding the benefits of all of the different transportation technologies that can achieve significant GHG emission reductions, particularly without considering the costs and consequences that come with them.

Jerry Pallante

Retired, Environmental Engineer

NYS Department of Environmental Conservation