EPA, following California, moves to tighten heavy truck emission regs

The Biden administration is moving to lessen emissions from heavy trucks and buses in the first federal effort to eliminate smog and pollution from those vehicles since 2001.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is drawing up rules that would remove smog-forming nitrate oxide (NOx) emissions by up to 90% by 2031. The new rule would cover buses, light-duty delivery vans, tractor-trailers and other heavy trucks.

The new federal regulations are drawn from truck pollution rules recently enacted by California. These developments are a revival of California’s influence on the nation’s climate and clean air policies.

This follows four years in which ex-President Donald J. Trump seemed at war with the Golden State. The Trump administration had stripped away California’s authority to institute its own vehicle pollution standards, power that the state had enjoyed for more than 40 years.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is proposing to spend $37 billion next year to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, buildings and the energy sector.

“We are deeply gratified after years of uncertainty, years of sparring with the previous administration,” said Gov. Newsom. “We don’t imitate, we’re a model to the world. We want to harmonize again, upward, not downward.”

President Biden is clearly following California’s push toward stronger regulations, but faces an unsure industry in his fight against global warming.

American Trucking Associations (ATA) President and CEO Chris Spear said the association and industry would be closely reviewing the Biden administration’s proposed emissions rules for heavy-duty trucks. He said it would be critical that these rules result in usable, reliable and cost-effective equipment.

“We share the Biden Administration’s goals of reducing air pollution—as a longtime member of EPA SmartWay Transport Partnership—we have worked in harmony with environmental regulators to successfully reduce greenhouse gas and NOx emissions. We will be looking very closely at the proposal put forth today by the administration, and working with them to shape an outcome that builds on those reductions, while not hurting the reliability of the trucks and trailers we purchase, nor imposing unreasonable or unworkable costs on our industry,” Spear added.

The trucking industry wants assurances from the Biden administration that there will be one, single national NOx emissions standard and not a patchwork of differing state regulations. Spear also said that a national standard can be achieved with workable, reliable technology.

“Anything less than that will be extremely problematic for ATA and our members,” Spear cautioned.

An EPA spokesman said the proposed rule was “subject to interagency review, and will be rooted in the latest science and the law.”

As proposed, the federal rule is largely based on the California regulations but it’s likely some technical details could differ. California policies are designed to address California problems.  In 2020 California experienced 157 days where the air exceeded federal ozone standards; New York had just 13. 

The federal government last updated its truck emissions rule in 2001, when the EPA required commercial trucks to cut emissions of nitrogen dioxide by 95 percent over 10 years. The rule contributed to a 40-percent drop in national nitrogen dioxide emissions, according to the agency.

Jay Grimes, director of federal affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, has estimated it could cost up to $5,000 to update a truck to meet the new standards.  Other estimates are between $8,000 and $21,000 more per truck. A new Class 8 truck now costs in excess of $150,000, although discounts are given for large fleet purchases.

The Biden administration is portraying the stricter rules as a way to address the uneven effects of pollution on poor and minority communities, which are frequently near highways and ports.

“Seventy-two million people are estimated to live near truck freight routes in America, and they are more likely to be people of color and those with lower incomes,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

The EPA is offering several options to reduce transportation-related pollution.

“The EPA has engaged with stakeholders and identified several options in the proposal that address the robustness of the standards, options to incentivize early clean technology adoption and improvements to emissions warranties,” the agency said in a statement.

The EPA has estimated there would be $250 billion in economic benefits to the country and those benefits “would exceed its cost by billions of dollars.”

But some industry officials doubt that.

“This new standard simply may not be technologically feasible,” Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, told the New York Times. “We’re worried about the cost. There is a potential of adverse impacts on the economy and jobs.”

The EPA said it is accepting public comments on the proposed truck rule before finalizing it in 2023.

About the Author

John D. Schulz

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. John is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis.

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