Research & Commentary: Gov. Hickenlooper’s Low-Emission Vehicle Executive Order is Costly, Dangerous, and Unnecessary

Published July 5, 2018

Due to an executive order signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado will adopt California’s low-emission vehicles (LEV) standards. According to the LEV standards, 15 percent of vehicles sold in the state by 2025 must produce zero greenhouse gas emissions. The standards also mandate that internal-combustion automobile emissions are reduced by 50 percent over the same period.

“This executive order calls for the state to adopt air quality standards that will protect our quality of life in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said in an accompanying press release. On its face, this executive order seems to be a modest effort to protect Colorado’s environment and public health. However, its costs would be sizeable, while its environmental benefits would be modest or even negative.

Unfortunately, broad-based adoption of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs)—such as the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, and the Chevrolet Volt—will increase pollution and environmental costs, a May 2018 study from the Manhattan Institute concludes. “Based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA),” the study notes, “increased reliance on ZEVs will increase overall emissions of sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulates, compared with the same number of new internal combustion vehicles, even after accounting for emissions from petroleum refineries.”

Furthermore, there is effectively no economic value to the potential carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reductions of ZEVs. “Although new ZEVs will reduce CO2 emissions compared with new internal combustion vehicles, the overall reduction will be less than 1% of total forecast energy-related U.S. CO2 emissions through 2050,” the study continues. “That reduction will have no measurable impact on world climate and thus no economic value.”

“Even if, by 2050, all internal combustion vehicles were replaced by ZEVs,” the study concludes, “the resulting reduction in CO2 emissions would be less than 500 million tons per year. This is less than half the estimated annual impact of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s now-moribund Clean Power Plan, which itself would have had no impact on world climate.”

Essentially, Hickenlooper’s executive order would set up a state-level version of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard: the federal standard which forces manufacturers to produce, and consumers to purchase, automobiles with better fuel economy. 

Implementing the executive order would not reduce emissions while “protecting [Colorado’s] vibrant economy,” as Hickenlooper claims. Besides, air quality in Colorado and across the United States has already improved greatly over the last three decades. For instance, the U.S. is now emitting the lowest level of carbon-dioxide emissions since 1989. This trend should continue as newer, cleaner automobiles overtake older automobiles.

Unfortunately, the executive order could increase crash fatalities because lightweight cars are less safe than heavier vehicles that produce more CO2 emissions. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found a 500-pound reduction in  vehicle weight increased highway fatalities by as many as 3,900 and serious injuries by as many as 19,500 annually, respectively. An investigation by USA Today estimated 7,700 fatalities occurred for every mile-per-gallon increase in fuel economy. Although downsized and lightweight cars and trucks made to meet these standards would not significantly, or even notably, reduce emissions, they would reduce the safety of and vehicle choices for all Colorado families.

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission can reject Hickenlooper’s proposed LEV rule during its August meeting. Removing the LEV rule would benefit all families in the Centennial State by sustaining a healthy environment and securing their freedom to purchase a safe vehicle.

The following documents provide more information on ZEVs and fuel economy standards.

Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies
This Manhattan Institute study concludes the widespread adoption of electric vehicles in the United States will likely increase air pollution compared with new internal combustion vehicles. At the same time, subsidies for ZEVs and the required infrastructure to support them benefit the higher-income consumers who can afford to purchase them at the expense of lower-income consumers who cannot.

CAFE and ZEV Standards: Environmental Effects and Alternatives
This Reason Foundation Policy Brief from Vice President of Research Julian Morris and Research Associate Arthur R. Wardle concludes that requiring manufacturers to comply with fuel economy standards, rather than using a more cost-effective alternative policy tool to achieve the same goals, likely harms the environment.

The Effect of Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards on Consumers
This Reason Foundation Policy Brief from Vice President of Research Julian Morris argues CAFE standards distort manufacturers’ incentives, forcing them to produce new vehicles with lower gas consumption than would be preferred by consumers.

Battery Electric Vehicles vs. Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles: A United States-Based Comprehensive Assessment
This study from Arthur D. Liddle Global concludes the ultimate environmental and economic reality of electric vehicles is far more complicated than their promise, and that ZEVs expose humans, animals, and plant life to three times more toxicity than traditional combustible-engine vehicles.

Fuel Economy Standards Are a Costly Mistake
This Heritage Foundation Backgrounder argues Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have added thousands of dollars to new-car prices, costing consumers at least $3,800 per vehicle since 2009. CAFE standards have a minimal impact on global warming – less than two hundredths of a degree Celsius in 2100, according to the Obama administration’s optimistic estimate. These standards easily fail the cost-benefit test by a huge margin.

CAFE Standards in Plain English
This Reason Foundation brief from Vice President of Research Julian Morris and Assistant Director of Transportation Policy Baruch Feigenbaum describes in plain English the historical development of the CAFE standards and how they function.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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