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California Runs Out Of Gas

California Governor Gavin Newsom at the Near Future Summit.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom in May 2019. Photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson, licensed under CC BY.

One morning next week I will climb into a fully loaded minivan and drive nonstop for about 17 hours from my Florida home to the Northeast for an extended stay with family.

My reverse-snowbird migratory pattern comes courtesy of the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced me (like countless millions) to abandon my frequent travels and hunker down. But the ease with which I will get myself and my goods where I want to go is courtesy of more than a century of combined public and private investment that has made Americans arguably the most mobile people on Earth.

My “nonstop” drive will not be truly nonstop, of course. Neither automotive fuel tanks nor human organs are designed with a range of more than 1,000 miles. Having traveled this route many times, I know I will make fueling stops in South Carolina, Virginia, and somewhere in the Delaware River area before crossing the Hudson. Other pit stops will be on an as-needed basis, but none will take more than a few minutes.

Will I still make these long East Coast drives 15 or 20 years from now, by which time I will be deep into my 70s or beyond them? That’s hard to say. But at least it is in the realm of possibility – on my side of the country. California, the state that is literally running out of gas, is doing its best to take the option off the table.

Under a political smokescreen provided by devastating forest fires, that state’s Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order that would ban the sale of new gasoline- and diesel-powered passenger vehicles in California beginning in 2035. In a press release whose puffery would make a used-car salesman blush, Newsom assured Californians that they would still be allowed to own and sell their existing internal combustion vehicles. They simply will not want to do so. Why not? Because, by the time the new rules take effect, “zero-emission vehicles will almost certainly be cheaper and better than the traditional fossil fuel powered cars.”

Then who needs a mandate? Why not just let everyone choose to buy those better, cheaper vehicles on their own?

Also, why lie about the implications of who would be allowed to own what in Newsom’s bright green future? Taken at face value, his order (which spares legislators the trouble of actually having to explain a vote for this diktat to their constituents) should be wonderful news for present and future new-car dealers in Nevada. Californians who want gas guzzlers could hop over the state line and drive them back, in Newsom’s scenario.

Sure – and if you like your health plan, you can keep it, too. Some pledges are incapable of fulfillment even as they are uttered, but that does not stop politicians from uttering them.

Keep in mind that California is a state that cannot keep the lights on reliably right now. Two separate sets of energy policy miscues, two decades apart, have subjected the state’s major cities to rolling blackouts. Now Newsom promises Golden State residents that they will have ample electricity to charge their car batteries, or ample hydrogen supplies to keep their fuel cells churning out water as a byproduct, to get themselves wherever they want to go – before today’s newborns are old enough to share the driving.

It sounds like a pipe dream. Even if it works, though, it may only work in California. That would be cold comfort to my friends in the San Fernando Valley who, at the start of the pandemic, decided to isolate themselves at a family cabin in Idaho. That’s Idaho, as in 22 hours of driving time away, across Nevada’s deserts and Idaho’s Rockies. Trucks delivering liquefied hydrogen will hardly reach such places easily. Even after 120 years of internal combustion motoring, there are parts of the West where there are no public gasoline pumps for 100 miles. (Most ranches in these places keep their own fuel on hand.)

Returning to my nonstop drive on Interstate 95, one reason it is practical is that refueling a gasoline vehicle takes only a few minutes. After that, it is good for another 300 miles or more. This will not be possible for electric vehicles until they have standardized, interchangeable, swappable battery packs. The U.S. market is far from that right now. And good luck fueling a hydrogen vehicle outside California.

Today’s longer-range electrics are also all small and light, to minimize their power demand. They are not the sort of vehicle to which one can hitch a boat to take up to the lake.

Newsom’s edict is part fantasy, part folly. He cites other countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, that have made plans to phase out petroleum-powered vehicles. There are many parts of the world where people live and travel differently than Americans do. In those places, people have different expectations about how and when they can reach the places they want to go. Newsom’s climate justifications are just that – justifications. He does not even pretend that the net difference in emissions would make any measurable short-term difference in California’s weather, although his scheme would mean a big difference in Californians’ lifestyle and travel options.

As for that Las Vegas car dealership investment, think twice. California won’t be sending a flood of car buyers over the state line in reality. Or, if it does, that flood won’t intend to take their new gas-powered SUVs back to California.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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