The Clean Air Act passed by Congress in 1967 was the first federal law to address tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. It specifically granted individual states the power to establish more stringent standards to protect their citizens, provided they obtained a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency. California has had such a waiver for decades, but it applied only to passenger cars and light trucks. Heavy trucks like a cement mixers, tractor trailers, or garbage trucks sold in California had to meet federal guidelines, but not tougher standards set by the California Air Resources Board.
In 2020, CARB proposed new rules for heavy trucks and requested a waiver from EPA to apply them to heavy duty vehicles sold within its borders. On March 31, the EPA granted the state’s request. As a result, the Golden State will now require that 55% of delivery vans and small trucks, 75% of buses and larger trucks, and 40% of tractor trailers and other big rigs sold in the state be battery-electric by 2035. CARB is expected to approve the final version of its Advanced Clean Trucks regulations later this month.
The new rules will take effect next year and require manufacturers to produce zero emission trucks beginning in 2024 with production targets that increase annually. The rules will curb climate pollution by nearly three million metric tons each year by 2040, according to estimates from the California Air Resources Board. Heavy duty trucks represent nearly one-third of the state’s nitrogen oxide and more than one quarter of its fine particulate pollution from burning diesel fuel, according to CNBC.
“California has been hard at work passing landmark regulations to clean our air and protect our climate with zero emissions vehicles, so we’re heartened to see EPA stand with California today and grant this waiver,” Paul Cort, director of the Earthjustice Right to Zero campaign, said in a statement.
The Advanced Clean Truck law has already been adopted by 6 other states — New York, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Vermont. EarthJustice says diesel trucks are dangerous to public health because diesel pollution causes asthma, lung disease, and death, leading doctors to call neighborhoods with heavy diesel truck traffic “diesel death zones.”
“This is a moment to mark because it’s a preview of the order of magnitude of the change in the industry,” California governor Gavin Newsom said in an interview, according to the New York Times. “There’s a power in these waivers and that power is emulation. We adopt through these waivers the principles and policies that lead to innovation and investment.”
“Under the Clean Air Act, California has longstanding authority to address pollution from cars and trucks,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan. “Today’s announcement allows the state to take additional steps in reducing their transportation emissions through these new regulatory actions.”
Pushing Back On Electric Trucks
Not everyone is happy about what California and the EPA are doing. Jed Mandel, the president of the Engine Manufacturers Association, whose members make the diesel engines and transmissions for heavy trucks, said that his members recognize California’s legal right to impose the rule, but worry that it could harm their business.
“We remain concerned that limiting manufacturers’ lead time to produce compliant vehicles will present significant challenges. Adequate lead time, regulatory stability, and the necessary zero emission recharging and refueling infrastructure are imperative for manufacturers to develop, build, and sell the customer acceptable, effective products” capable of meeting the mandate, he said in a statement.
Requiring manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of electric vehicles is a step beyond regulating pollution from tailpipes, said Steven Bradbury, chief legal counsel for the Transportation Department during the Trump administration. “If California by regulation can force the automakers and truck manufacturers to change the types of vehicles they produce, that’s effectively going to impose those restrictions on the rest of the nation. And you haven’t yet got a business case that’s proven in the market that you can actually operate battery operated heavy trucks and make it viable.”
Truckers claim the cost and difficulty of complying with the new regulations could be overwhelming. “A lot of the California truck rules that have been adopted and enacted recently are starting to push truck drivers out of the state,” said Jay Grimes, director of federal affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Drivers don’t want to work in California anymore. They’re skeptical of the rapid timeline on this transition to electric trucks. Can a trucker get a charge that will take them on a highway for two or three days? Is the technology ready for prime time?”
Those are not idle questions. The California rules go very far, very fast. Virtually every product on the shelves at big box stores or delivered by online retailers is transported from the place of manufacture to the end user in a truck powered by a diesel engine. The critics are correct when they say the supply of electric trucks and the charging infrastructure needed to support them are virtually nonexistent today. Things will need to change very quickly if the new rules are to be adhered to.
Meanwhile, 17 Republican-controlled states have sued to block the EPA heavy truck waiver. The case is pending before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. No matter what the outcome of that appeal, the case will almost certainly wind up in the laps of the US Supreme Court, where 6 of the sitting judges are lap dogs of the fossil fuel industry who have shown repeatedly they have little regard for precedent or judicial norms.
Fouling The Nest
Whether the topic is switching to renewable energy or transitioning to clean vehicles, the underlying issue is the same. We as a species need to stop fouling our own nest if we have any hope of bequeathing a habitable world to our descendants. Will doing so be inconvenient? Most definitely. The world as we know it runs on fossil fuels. Changing that means changing how we live in important ways. That won’t be easy or convenient or simple. But it is necessary.
As regular reader Are Hansen said in a comment recently, 70% of the energy created when we burn fossil fuels is wasted, usually in the form of heat. How can we possibly justify such profligate behavior, especially when there are alternatives that are 90% efficient?
A journey of a hundred miles begins with but a single step. We need to take that first step and we need to do it now — today — not tomorrow. Kicking the can down the road for the sake of convenience or to preserve the profits of a favored few is simply suicidal. As John F. Kennedy so famously said, “We do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” It’s time to do the hard work necessary to maintain our precious Earth as a place where humans can continue to thrive for millennia to come. Let’s get started.
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