Fact Check: Minnesota isn't rushing to adopt California's gas-car sales ban

As California moves toward banning sales of new gas-powered vehicles in 2035, Minnesota isn't rushing headfirst to join the Golden State.

There are no plans to implement a California-style ban here, DFL Gov. Tim Walz's campaign tells FOX 9 in his most definitive statement on the issue. In recent public statements, Walz's regulators haven't ruled out the idea but haven't embraced it, either.

"California has made a choice that makes sense for California, and at this point, we are just moving forward with our plan," Katrina Kessler, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's commissioner, told reporters last week.

It's not quite that simple, because Minnesota adopted California's previous standards. Now it must decide by 2025 whether to follow California toward the gas-car ban or revert back to less-strict federal emissions rules.

Minnesota's auto dealers and Republican lawmakers have been pressuring state regulators to give a yes or no answer on what they'll do.

"The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s position on California cars seems to be evolving, but we’d like a straight answer," said Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Auto Dealers Association, which is suing over the state over the issue. "Are they going to continue with the California car mandate or not?"

Why Minnesota follows California

California has the unique power to design its own vehicle emissions standards. The 1970 federal Clean Air Act gave California that authority to deal with smog around Los Angeles.

Other states can't adopt their own standards. Instead, they have two options: use California's rules or the federal ones.

Last year, the Walz administration followed through with a years-long process to adopt California's initial emissions standards, which don't include the gas-car ban. Once the rules take effect in 2024 - for model year 2025 – they'll require Minnesota auto dealers to carry a higher percentage of electric vehicles in their inventory.

Walz says the standard will make EVs more available in Minnesota while reducing carbon emissions. Right now, the transportation sector accounts for 25% of carbon emissions in the state.

The decision came over objections from Republican lawmakers, who forced out then-Pollution Control Commissioner Laura Bishop. The state's car dealers sued the Walz administration, lost, and are now appealing.

California's latest move threw a wrench in Minnesota's planning. Starting in 2026, California will restrict the percentage of gas-powered cars that dealers can sell. Then, in 2035, the ban kicks in.

Seventeen states have adopted California's earlier standards and now face choices about whether to impose their own bans or untether themselves from California's rules. Several, including Washington and Massachusetts, are expected to adopt their own bans. Others, like Colorado and Pennsylvania, have no plans to do so.

Minnesota's next move

Minnesota regulators say they're not starting another rulemaking process to join California's ban at this point.

"Minnesota would need to conduct another rulemaking process to adopt anything other than the standards that were adopted in 2021," said Andrea Cournoyer, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "If the state takes no action, the federal standards – not California standards – will apply for new vehicles sold in Minnesota, beginning with model year 2026."

That means California's initial standards, which require dealers to carry a larger percentage of EVs, will be in effect here for only one model year, 2025.

The issue has been a minor factor during the governor's race between Walz and Republican Scott Jensen.

Last week, Walz released a 69-page climate plan that doesn't include a California-style ban. Instead, it calls for 20% of the cars on Minnesota roads to be electric by 2030, up from less than 1% now. The benchmark is only a goal, not a requirement.

"There are no plans to implement the new California  car policy," a Walz campaign spokesman said. 

Meanwhile, Jensen has criticized Walz over the adoption of California's initial standards and has said he'd repeal them if elected governor.

State regulators and at least one environmental group said the landscape now provides opportunities to boost EV adoption without following California's rules. Among the shifts: more EVs on the market, a looming build-out of electric vehicle charging networks through the 2021 federal infrastructure law, and renewed $7,500 tax credits for EV purchases through this year's federal climate law.

Aaron Klemz, chief strategy officer for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said his group has not decided whether to push for a California-style ban.

"The changes in the EV market that have occurred between early 2019 and now are dramatic, and the recent passage of the (2022 climate law) has added even more dynamism to this issue," Klemz said in an email. "That's why we are taking a broader view and gathering more information before making a decision on whether to push for another rulemaking."

Klemz's group has intervened in the auto dealers' lawsuit to defend Minnesota regulators' legal authority to issue new rules in the future.