What would happen if the US curbed pollution pouring out of the tailpipes of new tractor trailers, refuse trucks, and other heavy duty vehicles? Residents of cities and towns with proximity to highways would breath cleaner air, for one thing. In urban areas across the US, low income neighborhoods and communities of color experience an average of 28% more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution than higher-income and majority white neighborhoods. The disparity is located primarily by proximity to trucking routes on major roadways, where diesel vehicles are emitters of NO2 and other air pollutants.
A 60% drop in heavy trucking on weekends results in a 40% decrease in air pollution inequality.
About 72 million people live within 200 meters (220 yards) of a truck freight route. “These overburdened communities are directly exposed to pollution that causes respiratory and cardiovascular problems, among other serious and costly health effects,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement this week.
As a result, the Biden administration is proposing new, stronger standards to promote clean air and reduce pollution from heavy duty vehicles and engines starting in model year 2027. These ambitious pollution regulations for new trucking vehicles would clean up murky diesel engine fumes and encourage new technologies during the next two decades. The standards would apply to not only huge 18-wheelers hauling freight on highways but also many school buses, delivery vans, and moving trucks.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule would cut the emission of nitrogen oxides — poisonous and reactive gases that can cause asthma attacks — from engines in some of the biggest vehicles on America’s roadways. Nitrogen oxides form when gasoline, diesel, and other fossil fuels burn at high temperatures, and breathing them can trigger asthma attacks and lead to other health problems. When wafted into the air, these gases contribute to smog, soot, and acid rain.
In the same proposal, the agency will also consider further limiting the amount of carbon dioxide these vehicles spew into the air as part of a suite of actions aimed at cutting emissions from the largest vehicles on roadways, including $1.1 billion in Transportation Department funding this year for state and local governments to purchase cleaner transit buses.
Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change. The covid 19 pandemic, which required people to shelter in place, increased trucking delivery orders and worsened air pollution along highways and in areas near warehouses.
New Standards are a Start, but Isn’t Electrification the Actual Goal?
Transformative changes are needed to truly begin to remove NO2 pollution disparity. Transitioning to electric heavy duty trucks could be one way of reducing pollution exposure. This newest push for stricter tailpipe emission limits from heavy trucks reflects Biden’s broader push to transition the nation to an all-electric fleet. The EPA called the new rule the first in a 3-step “Clean Trucks Plan” — a series of clean air and climate change regulations over the next 3 years designed to reduce pollution from trucks and buses and to accelerate the transition to a future of all electric, zero pollution vehicles.
In December, the administration finalized new limits on carbon emissions for passenger cars and light trucks, and it has started to spend $5 billion on expanding charging stations across the country.
However, the EPA insists the proposal is not a zero emissions truck requirement. Rather, the agency says there are pollution control devices in development that can keep diesels in use and still clean the air.
Some environmentalists criticize the Biden administration for not taking more aggressive steps to spur the sale of electric trucks that emit no air pollution. “Any rule that doesn’t include requirements that some of these new trucks be electrified seems to be a missed opportunity,” said Paul Cort, an attorney with the law firm Earthjustice and a former attorney at the EPA’s Office of General Counsel.
“It’s great to see that the rule is driving 90% reduction in air pollution in heavy-duty vehicles and at the same time opening the door to reducing greenhouse gas pollution,” said Drew Kodjak, executive director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research organization. “But we’ve got this thing called climate change and we’ve really got to start driving electrification in the heavy-duty truck sector. My big concern is that the proposal as it is written will not do that.”
“Cutting emissions anywhere is good,” said Yana Kalmyka, an organizer with Warehouse Workers for Justice. “But if you’re thinking about a community that has tens of thousands of trucks a day passing through it, electrification is the only just solution. The rule is not addressing other industrial truck pollutants such as soot, and we know that black and brown communities are facing cumulative burdens from these pollutants.”
Won’t the New Rules Cost Too Much for The Trucking Industry?
Concerns about the battery weight and charging requirements involved in long distance trucking are barriers to electrifying everything to do with heavy duty trucking.
Biden officials have even encountered resistance within the federal government. For example, last month the US Postal Service defied Biden officials’ objections to the purchase of up to 148,000 gasoline-powered vehicles.
Truck engine makers and other industry groups said they favor cutting pollution but raised concerns that the requirements may not be technically possible or could make trucks costly and unreliable.
Blah, blah, blah.
A US Department of Energy (DOE) today released a study refutes the trucking industry claims about technology gaps and cost overrides. The study outlines how, by 2030, nearly half of medium- and heavy-duty trucks will be cheaper to buy, operate, and maintain as zero emissions vehicles than traditional diesel-powered combustion engine vehicles. Published by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the study finds that continued improvements with zero emission vehicle and fuel technologies will enable clean trucks to become cheaper and more readily available over the next decade. Increased use of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) within the trucking industry will support the decarbonization of US transportation sector and advance President Joe Biden’s goals to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, address the climate crisis, and bolster domestic manufacturing.
Reducing Trucking Emissions: The Stats behind the Announcements
And it’s not only heavy duty trucks that need to pick up their emissions reductions game. A 2021 Harvard study found significant recent progress in reducing emissions from heavy-duty trucks but less progress with passenger light-duty vehicles, including cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks. Passenger light-duty vehicles accounted for two-thirds of the public health burden from transportation-related air pollution in 2017, the authors said. They noted that emissions from these vehicles in large metropolitan areas are so harmful that they are responsible for 30% more attributable deaths than all heavy-duty trucks across the nation.
WHO guidelines recommend air quality levels for 6 pollutants that have emerged as producing the greatest negative health effects from exposure. When action is taken on these so-called classical pollutants — particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO), it also has an impact on other damaging pollutants.
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