Just four years ago, the end of the Oil Age was considered a crazy dream. Today it is official policy in a growing number of countries, states, cities and corporate boardrooms around the world.
Certainly, there are good reasons to be skeptical that proposed phase-outs and bans will actually take place as scheduled. However, a major conceptual barrier has been crossed—the idea can no longer be dismissed as the ravings of green-eyed lunatics.
In 2017, a bill that would phase out the sale of gas burners starting in 2040 was introduced in the California legislature. Matthew Metz, Co-Executive Director of the advocacy group Coltura, published an op-ed calling for Washington state to follow suit. “Crazy” was one of the kinder words used in the media reaction that followed. Mr. Metz was called loony, “moonbatty” and (of course) a commie. “I’d say the reaction is about 99.9 percent negative,” he told The Seattle Times. “But people will get over it.”
How crazy was the idea? In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring all new passenger vehicles sold in the state to be zero-emission by 2035. In March 2021, Washington state raised the stakes, proposing to phase out the stinkers by 2030. Massachusetts and New York have also joined the movement away from oil.
As NPR reports, a lot has changed in four years, and “what was once a fringe idea is now part of a global trend.” Tesla has become the world’s most valuable automaker, and its success has caused a mad scramble by the legacy brands to accelerate their own electrification programs (or at least to try to convince Wall Street that they’re doing so). Some of these have announced their own self-imposed deadlines to end production of fossil-powered cars.
“More and more countries are announcing targets to phase out internal combustion engine vehicles at the national level,” Sandra Wappelhorst of the International Council on Clean Transportation told NPR.
At last count, some 25 countries and several US states have announced plans to end the sale of petroleum burners. The European Union is considering a zero-emission mandate that could start to bite around 2035. Global capitals including Amsterdam, London and Oslo have proposed bans on gas burners in city centers. Many, many urban transit agencies have set dates to convert their public transit fleets to all-electric. Automakers that have announced plans to wind down production of ICE vehicles include GM, Honda, Mercedes, VW and Volvo.
Readers, we are skeptical. As far as we are aware, not a single one of the “bans” that’s been announced is actually settled law. Most are “proposals,” and some are executive orders that could easily be reversed by a future administration. Some headline-grabbing announcements, such as COP26’s non-binding suggestion that all vehicles be zero-emission by 2040, or President Joe Biden’s call for 50% of US sales to be EVs by 2030, amount to little more than statements that “it would be nice if...” The proposals from automakers invariably include weaselly phrases like “if market conditions allow.”
Furthermore, the timelines attached to most of these proposals are so far in the future that no action will be required in the next few years (except for commissioning consultants to prepare lengthy studies and market assessments at taxpayer expense). The policymakers who crafted all these vague proposals will be out of office and on the golf course long before their successors have to figure out how to implement them.
However, that doesn’t mean that all these proposals are meaningless. Some automakers seem to be taking them seriously, and so is the oil industry, judging by the ever-growing flood of anti-EV FUD that’s been taking over our inboxes lately. And a few years from now, we might just be surprised to find that some of these jurisdictions (California and Amsterdam are likely candidates) remain deadly serious about ending fossil-vehicle sales on schedule.
Perceptions matter, and right now public perception is coming around to the idea that the Oil Age is drawing to a close. The demise of gas cars may be pretty far in the future, and it may turn out to be a messy affair, but it’s no longer a crazy idea.