For months, Colorado lawmakers and businesses have taken sides at a figurative continental divide—and not far from the real one—over whether (and how) the state might join California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle program and its corresponding electric-car mandate. 

We now have an answer. The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission has voted 8-1 in favor of a new standard requiring zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). 

With the move, Colorado is one of ten other states to observe California's ZEV standards, which include a mandate that a certain portion of electric vehicles sold in the state be some combination of battery electric cars, plug-in hybrids, or potentially fuel-cell vehicles.

The other states observing the California rule include Oregon in the West and Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont in the East. 

Under framework adopted Friday, and worked out in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado will require that 5 percent of sellable inventory be ZEVs in 2023 and that moves up to 6 percent in 2025. The program allows some flexibility across model years and vehicle types, under the assurance from automakers it would mean more models available in the state. 

The move isn’t at all unexpected. Last November, Colorado moved to adopt California Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) standards, which, among other things, ramp up the standards on how long vehicle emissions equipment needs to last versus federal rules. Then in January, Colorado Governor Jared Polis directed state agencies to develop policies that would encourage EV adoption in the state.

CARB ZEV program - greenhouse gas and smog-forming emissions

CARB ZEV program - greenhouse gas and smog-forming emissions

A report supported by the Environmental Defense Fund concluded that under a baseline scenario in which Colorado didn’t adopt ZEV rules, annual sales of such vehicles would rise modestly to 8,594 in 2023 and 12,680 in 2030. But under the most ambitious scenario, in which it was assumed EV sales would also be growing nationally, numbers of 15,589 and 65,055 were projected. According to the Auto Alliance, there were 270,687 total vehicle sales in the state in 2017.

That and several other studies arrived at economic benefits (partly linked to public health) from the adoption of the rules. Under the adoption of the rules, the EDF report projected that emissions of nitrogen oxides, a precursor to smog—would be roughly halved across the vehicle fleet by 2050. 

The Denver region is especially smog-prone and is the 12th most-polluted city in the nation, based on smog-forming pollutants, according to the American Lung Association. 

The consumer advocacy organization Consumer Reports called the adoption of the program a smart move for saving money and reducing air pollution.

“Thanks to this decision, Coloradans can expect to be among the first to get access to electric vehicles, including electric pickups and SUVs, as they come to market in the coming years,” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, CR’s manager of cars and energy policy.

Consumer Reports called the state’s approval “a win-win,” but noted that consumer education is an important hurdle. It found that 85 percent of prospective car shoppers in the state are unaware that it offers a $5,000 incentive for consumers purchasing or leasing a new electric car [Ed: or plug-in hybrid].

Chevrolet Bolt EV at ChargePoint station

Chevrolet Bolt EV at ChargePoint station

Automakers, represented by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, had been pushing for voluntary rules instead. In a June op-ed in the Colorado Sun, the CEO and president Tim Jackson of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association—one of the most vocal critics of the plan—claimed that it would place a financial penalty on those who don’t find plug-in vehicles meet their needs. 

The new challenge for automakers is more of a logistical one. California and the nine states that had up until now gone with the ZEV mandate make up nearly 30 percent of the U.S. new-vehicle market. Adding Colorado to the mix nudges ZEV states close to a third of the market—all while the EPA could be poised to challenge California rules and further relax federal emissions and fuel economy rules.