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Air Quality

California’s New Diesel Emissions Reduction Rules For Trucks & Trains

California has begun the process of phasing out diesel trucks as it moves further toward a zero emissions economy.

The diesel engine is both a blessing and a curse. It is revered for its ability to move heavy loads — tractor trailers, delivery vehicles, trains, ships, and the like — efficiently. Its primary advantage is massive low speed torque, the kind of grunt that can get heavily laden vehicles moving from rest-and-lug semi-trailers loaded with up to 80,000 pounds of cargo over mountain passes on their way to market. It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every product known to humanity is transported by a diesel-powered vehicle at some point.

The diesel engine has one important downside, however. The stuff pouring out of those lovely twin exhaust stacks on the Peterbilt ahead of you on the highway contains a truckload (pun intended) of nasty stuff that is bad for your lungs, your brain, and your heart — oxides of nitrogen and fine particulates, for instance. In addition to that overload of junk, those exhaust pipes also leave huge amounts of carbon dioxide in their wake.

California has decided the curse of the diesel engine more than offsets its advantages. On April 28, the California Air Resources Board unanimously approved new rules that will require the trucking and railroad industries to dramatically reduce diesel engine pollution. Part of that plan involves the use of more alternative fuels, but mostly it comes down to transitioning away from diesel engines to vehicles powered by electric motors. Those motors may get their electrons from batteries or fuel cells, or any other source of electricity that may evolve in the future. The rules leave plenty of room for innovation, but establishes ambitious timelines for when the switch to non-polluting vehicles must take place.

Naturally, many people are displeased with the new rules, which may be adopted by the other dozen states that have agreed to follow California’s lead on vehicle emissions. Chris Shimoda, senior vice president of the California Trucking Association, told San Francisco’s KRON4, “The amount of chaos and dysfunction that is going to be created by this rule will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The likelihood that it is going to fail pretty spectacularly is very high. It’s very unfortunate.” Mike Tunnell at the American Trucking association said companies “would rather see the technology be proven and work” before rules are put in place.

Both make a valid point. Transitioning to clean heavy trucks is going to be expensive, it is going to be a hassle, it is going to cause confusion, and it is going to be painful for many companies. On the other hand, none of those negatives will be as great as the disruptions that a warming planet holds in store for us if we do nothing.

This isn’t about picking winners and losers. It is about the survival of the human race. As Elon Musk said in his latest Master Plan 3, the cost of the clean energy transition will be about $100 trillion. That’s a staggeringly big number. But the cost of doing nothing will be much, much higher — around $140 trillion, Musk says.

The California Ditching Diesel Plan

CARB says its Advanced Clean Fleets rule will promote $26.6 billion in health savings from reduced asthma attacks, emergency room visits, and respiratory illnesses, and that fleet owners will save an estimated $48 billion in their total operating costs from the transition through 2050.

While trucks represent only 6% of the vehicles on California’s roads, they account for over 35% of the state’s transportation-generated nitrogen oxide emissions and a quarter of the state’s on-road greenhouse gas emissions. California communities that sit near trucking corridors and warehouse locations with heavy truck traffic have some of the worst air in the nation. California is set to invest almost $3 billion between 2021 and 2025 in zero emission trucks and infrastructure. This investment is a part of a $9 billion multi-year, multi-agency zero-emissions vehicle package to equitably decarbonize the transportation sector that was agreed upon by the governor and the legislature in 2021.

“We have the technology available to start working toward a zero-emission future now,” said CARB Chair Liane Randolph. “The Advanced Clean Fleets rule is a reasonable and innovative approach to clean up the vehicles on our roads and ensure that Californians have the clean air that they want and deserve. At the same time, this rule provides manufacturers, truck owners and fueling providers the assurance that there will be a market and the demand for zero-emissions vehicles, while providing a flexible path to making the transition toward clean air.”

“California continues to lead by example with first-of-its-kind standards to slash air pollution and toxics from heavy-duty trucks,” said Yana Garcia, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection. “Where you live, work, or go to school should not determine the quality of the air you breathe. The Advanced Clean Fleets rule brings California one step closer to addressing historic inequities that have placed some communities at the epicenter of environmental pollution and the resulting health consequences, while accelerating our transition to a zero-emission future.”

Under the new rule, fleet owners operating vehicles for private services such as last mile delivery and federal fleets such as the Postal Service, along with state and local government fleets, will begin their transition toward zero emission vehicles starting in 2024. The rule includes the ability to continue operating existing vehicles through their useful life.

Due to the impact that truck traffic has on residents living near heavily trafficked corridors, drayage trucks will need to be zero emissions by 2035. All other fleet owners will have the option to transition a percentage of their vehicles to meet expected zero emission milestones, which gives owners the flexibility to continue operating internal combustion powered vehicles as needed during the move toward cleaner technology.

That flexibility is intended to take into consideration the available technology and the need to target the highest polluting vehicles. For example, last mile delivery and yard trucks must transition by 2035, work trucks and day cab tractors must be zero emission by 2039, and sleeper cab tractors and specialty vehicles must be zero emission by 2042.

The annual State of Sustainable Fleets 2023 Market Brief, produced for Penske, Daimler Truck, and Shell by clean transportation and energy consulting firm Gladstein, Neandross & Associates (GNA), emphasizes the prospects for alternative fuels such as renewable diesel, but advises that “leading heavy duty truck manufacturers have begun to announce the sunset of or transition to post-internal combustion engines for vehicles in North America and there is speculation that more announcements will come. California’s Advanced Clean Fleets rule will require large fleet owners to steadily increase their use of ZEVs until reaching 100% between 2035 and 2042.”

Last year, Transport & Environment published a report which claimed e-diesel fuel costs about half again as much as electricity. Fleet managers are laser-focused on total cost of operation, and the cost of fuel is a big part of that calculation. The tension between going electric — either with batteries or fuel cells — or extending the life of existing diesel-powered trucks with alternative fuels will exist for a few years longer, but at some point, economics will dictate who wins that battle.

electric vs diesel trucks

Clean trucks will need a robust charging infrastructure to keep them powered up and working. A consortium comprised of Daimler Trucks, Next Era Energy, and BlackRock announced this week that it intends to develop the charging infrastructure for heavy duty trucks that will be needed to support the transition to clean fleets. Its facilities, which will operate under the name of Greenlane, may included hydrogen refueling stations.

Cleaner Locomotives

California also last week announced more stringent exhaust emissions standards for the locomotives used to pull freight trains in the Golden State. The rule will ban locomotive engines more than 23 years old by 2030, and increase the use of zero emissions technology to transport freight from ports and within rail yards. It would also ban locomotives in the state from idling longer than 30 minutes if they are equipped with an automatic shutoff. “It is time to kickstart the next step of transformation, with trains,” said Davina Hurt, a California Air Resources Board member, according to the Associated Press.

Predictably, not everyone is enthusiastic about the new rule. Wayne Winegarden, a Pacific Research Institute senior fellow, said the rule would be expensive for rail companies, and increased costs will mean higher prices for many goods that move by rail. The Association of American Railroads said in a statement “there is no clear path to zero emissions locomotives. Mandating that result ignores the complexity and interconnected nature of railroad operations and the reality of where zero emission locomotive technology and the supporting infrastructure stand.”

Industry representatives point out that railroads create fewer emissions per ton-mile than tractor trailers, and that they are only responsible for 2% of all transportation related emissions in the US. Kristen South, a Union Pacific spokesperson, said in a statement the rail company is “deeply disappointed” by the vote, adding that the rule is too ambitious for the current technology and infrastructure. Union Pacific is working to cut greenhouse gas emissions in part by spending $1 billion to modernize locomotives and testing out engines powered by batteries, South wrote.

The new California rule, which is the most ambitious of any state in the nation, will need approval from the Biden administration before it is implemented. “The locomotive rule has the power to change the course of history for Californians who have suffered from train pollution for far too long, and it is my hope that our federal regulators follow California’s lead,” said Yasmine Agelidis, a lawyer with environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, in a statement.

The Takeaway

The transition to clean trucks is essential to meeting America’s zero emissions goals. California is setting the pace, but there are a lot of headwinds on the horizon. For instance, the next election could see all the carefully laid plans put in place by the Biden administration come crashing down. So many people cannot see beyond the end of next week, but if the Earth is to remain habitable for humans, strict emissions policies will be necessary.

Whatever economic pain results from the transition to a zero carbon world will be insignificant compared to the pain that will result if we do not move quickly and decisively now. The need to stop emitting pollution that leads to a warmer planet is immediate. If that is inconvenient for some, so be it. Once again, California is rushing in where others fear to tread. That’s great news for those who want their heirs to inherit a sustainable Earth.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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