New Mexico targets vehicle emissions

An electric vehicle charging station in the parking lot of the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico is crafting “clean car” standards that could go into effect by 2025, in an effort to target the state’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

State regulators want to adopt California’s rules requiring more fuel-efficient vehicles and zero-emission vehicles.

California’s standards are the strictest in the nation, and states can choose either to adopt those rules or the federal government’s more relaxed standards.

Rules would apply only to new vehicles, said Sandra Ely, the New Mexico Environment Department’s Environmental Protection Division director.

“You don’t have to retrofit your vehicle,” Ely said. “It does not apply to off-road or heavy-duty vehicles like farm equipment, and it does not require additional emissions testing.”

A low-emission vehicle, or LEV, standard would require manufacturers’ new fleet deliveries to New Mexico dealers to meet a combined specific emissions standard over a one-year period.

That means that some in the fleet may surpass the standard, and some may release more pollutants than the target.

From 7% to 10% of vehicles that in-state dealers offer beginning in 2025 would need to be zero-emission under the rules.

Ely said the rules would help expand vehicle choices to include more fuel-efficient options that other clean-car states have.

“The variety of models will still be there,” she said. “SUVs and trucks will still be available under these standards.”

NMED data shows the transportation category emitted about 16 million metric tons in 2018, or 14% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The oil and gas industry accounts for 53% of state pollution.

The state estimates the changes would slash carbon dioxide emissions by about 2 million tons by 2030.

Claudia Borchert, NMED’s climate change policy coordinator, said adopting clean car standards is an important part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s goal to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by the year 2030.

“Cleaner air means less money going towards health treatments,” Borchert said. “It means more efficient vehicles, (and) it means that New Mexicans will spend less money at the pump.”

New Mexico had 1.16 plug-in electric vehicle registrations for every 1,000 people in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That puts the state 35th in the nation for electric vehicle ownership.

New Mexico and the city of Albuquerque are working together on proposed rules because the state does not have air quality jurisdiction in Bernalillo County.

Targeting vehicle emissions is necessary to reduce ground-level ozone pollution, said Mara Elana Burstein, Albuquerque’s deputy director of environmental health.

Bernalillo County had 23 days from 2017 to 2019 when ozone reached unhealthy levels.

“It’s important that we take action, because fine particulates and ozone can cause adverse health effects,” Burstein said.

Ozone forms from chemicals found in vehicle and industrial emissions and wildfire smoke.

The pollutant can cause respiratory problems.

The city conducted an ozone awareness campaign in 2019.

Public health messaging encouraged residents to bike to work, fill up on gas during the coolest part of the day and avoid idling engines to help cut down on the pollution.

‘A big investment’

Ken Ortiz, president of the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association, said expanding electric vehicle charging stations outside the Albuquerque and Santa Fe areas should “go hand in hand” with the state clean car initiative.

“Most of the dealers that have been certified by manufacturers to sell electric vehicles had to make a significant investment, such as charging stations at dealership lots, and tools to be able to service the vehicle. It’s quite a big investment,” Ortiz said. “We can’t just turn the switch without the (charging) infrastructure there.”

New Mexico has 376 electric vehicle charging ports at 158 stations, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Ortiz, who recently retired as state general services secretary, also said the association is “looking forward to working with the state and the city” on the rules and policies that would further expand the electric vehicle infrastructure network.

The Legislature has directed nearly $4 million in capital outlay funds to EV charging stations and infrastructure since 2019.

NMED has also awarded more than $2.7 million from a Volkswagen settlement to charging station projects.

More than a dozen other states have adopted or are adopting the California standards.

The country’s patchwork regulations could come into play if a customer wants a specific car that a dealer doesn’t have on site.

“A lot of our dealers have stores across state lines,” said Ortiz, whose association represents nearly 100 storefronts. “They may have several vehicles in other states that may meet all the demands a customer wants, but because that state may not have the same emission standards, there may be challenges finding a vehicle from a state that meets the California and New Mexico standards. As more and more states get to where we’re headed, that may not be an issue down the road.”

Rules repealed in 2013

NMED and Albuquerque adopted clean car standards in 2007 during Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration.

But the state repealed those rules in 2013 under Gov. Susana Martinez.

Lujan Grisham announced in September 2019 that the state would adopt stricter vehicle emissions standards by the end of 2021 – a deadline the Environment Department will most likely miss.

Earlier this year, the agency released draft rules aimed at reducing air pollution in the oil and gas industry.

Ely said NMED doesn’t have the resources to tackle another full rule-making process for auto emissions this year.

“In order to bring a rule to the board, it takes a fair amount of technical analysis by the department to understand the costs, to understand the environmental impacts, to understand the impacts to the community,” Ely said.

On July 23, the state Environmental Improvement Board denied a clean car rule-making petition by the Sierra Club and seven other environmental groups that would have helped pave the way for adopting new standards by the end of this year.

Mona Blaber, a Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter spokesperson, said that means it will take longer for New Mexicans to see the impact of less vehicle pollution.

“(NMED) said they were short on resources, so these groups started it for them, including documents to get a rule-making started,” Blaber said. “Rules would make EVs a lot more accessible for New Mexico and hopefully expand their use.”

Under NMED’s current timeline, rules would apply to model year 2026 vehicles at the earliest.

Adopting California’s rules should be a “straightforward” process that could accompany a credit system for dealers who go “above and beyond” the rules, said Tammy Fiebelkorn, New Mexico representative for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.

“On a regular day not in a pandemic, you go to a car dealership and want to buy an electric vehicle and there isn’t one,” Fiebelkorn said. “I recently traded in my old Chevy Spark to get a Nissan Leaf, and it was really hard to find. Having those vehicles available is critical to really starting the EV market movement in New Mexico.”

NMED plans to file a rule-making petition in December with the EIB and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board.

If the boards take up the petition, they could hold a joint hearing in May 2022, and rules could be adopted as early as October 2022.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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