April 21, 2024

In the 20 months since Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which offered billions in subsidies for clean energy projects and electric vehicles, President Joe Biden has tried to supplement those climate roots with a few key sticks. The Environmental Protection Agency has been racing to implement it in recent months, in the form of key regulations that limit carbon emissions from power plants, oil wells and passenger carsunder an effort to finalize new rules before the election.

On Friday, the administration finalized the last of those rules, a set of strict standards for carbon emissions from big rigs and other heavy duty vehicles. This regulation has been one of the most controversial Biden campaign measures, largely because it pushes the boundaries of available technology: Trucking companies and trucking industry advocates have argued that the rule could force them to abandon diesel engines before electric drivetrains are ready to replace them in long distance tractor trailers. The EPA weakened the rule of an earlier version in response to those concerns, delaying the mandate for the largest trucks by several years.

But the rule goes beyond long-haul trucks. It also applies to a wide range of other heavy-duty vehicles, including garbage trucks, box trucks, cement mixers and school buses. These vehicles spew toxic air pollution just like 18-wheelers, but they travel far fewer miles and carry lighter loads, making it easier to replace them with electric models.

“If you look at the share of vehicles, even in the tractor-trailer space, a large portion of them don’t drive more than 250 miles a day,” said Dave Cooke, a vehicle analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a climate advocacy organization. “There’s a significant part of the sector that could be electrified now because a lot of it has these really separate routes.” The rule will apply to about 11 million heavy duty vehicles in the United States.

The trucking industry’s opposition to the rule centered on what EV drivers often call range anxiety: tractor-trailers having to haul heavy loads down highways for hours at a time, and many existing batteries is not quite up to the task of replacing diesel engines over such long ranges. Furthermore, the few electric tractor trailers are currently several times more expensive than conventional models, and there are few places to charge them. The Biden administration sought to address this infrastructure gap with a “zero emission freight corridor strategy” that will channel chargers and network investments to interstates that carry a large share of long-haul freight.

But a large percentage of trucks and heavy-duty vehicles don’t make long trips, and so don’t have to worry as much about range. Garbage trucks, city buses and delivery vehicles, for example, travel at most a few hundred miles each day, within the range of current battery technology, and they return to a depot or warehouse where they can charge overnight.

Even the Clean Freight Coalition, which represents freight companies and trucking dealers, has found that most of these vehicles can be electrified using available technology. A recent report of the group found that electric models on the market currently can handle 93 percent of medium-duty truck routes, with only the longest 7 percent requiring more juice than current batteries can provide. That’s compared to just half of all tractor-trailer routes, according to the report.

The electric transition among short-distance vehicles is already taking place in many parts of the country. The Biden administration handed out billions of dollars to cities like Baltimore to carry out electric school busesand companies like Amazon have deployed a growing number of electric Rivian delivery trucks on package routes.

The nation’s most ambitious effort is underway in California, which has sought federal permission to impose even stricter truck emissions standards than the EPA. It is making a aggressive pressure on decarbonise short haul trucks, otherwise known as drayage. Trucks unloading cargo from the nation’s two largest ports, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, make thousands of trips through neighborhoods, and the state is pushing companies to go electric and improve air quality in those areas.

The Biden administration’s new rule set a faster timeline for things like delivery vans and utility trucks than for tractor trailers. The standards for those smaller vehicles begin in the 2027 model year, but standards for “sleeper cab” long-haul vehicles don’t go into effect until 2030, a change that represents a major concession to trucking industry concerns.

“We resign [EPA] for addressing industry concerns about the challenges of the early years of the rule and we remain committed to maintaining the spirit of this regulation,” Sean Waters, a chief executive at trucking giant Daimler, said in a statement said after the rule’s announcement.

Like the EPAs previous rule on passenger cars, the truck line is “technology neutral,” meaning it doesn’t require an electrical transition. Instead, it sets targets for the carbon emissions of a truck manufacturer’s entire fleet, giving them the option to increase the fuel efficiency of their diesel engines or offer hybrid or electric models. The agency laid out a hypothetical scenario showing how a company could achieve compliance in model year 2032 by rolling out a range of hybrid delivery vans and school buses. Two-thirds of its tractor-trailers will still run on diesel, with a smaller number of hydrogen fuel cell trucks thrown into the mix as well.

Cooke says the agency could have pushed companies harder to switch to zero-emission vehicles, since the technology for electrified short-haul trucks already exists.

“This rule doesn’t put that guarantee in place, that we’re going to see zero-emission trucks in communities on the ground dealing with the trucking sector,” he said, adding that he hoped for a “stronger signal” to companies and utilities to invest in electric trucks and transmission infrastructure to charge them.

Even so, the rule will still lead to significant improvements in air quality, said Laura Kate Bender, who leads healthy air advocacy at the American Lung Association. This will apply even to cities without major truck routes or major ports, she said: Large local vehicles such as buses and garbage trucks are among the most polluting vehicles on the average city street, and a strong push to replace them with electric models will alleviate the burden on frontline communities.

“There are many different types of trucks, other than the big long-haul trucks that we think of on the highway, that are actually in people’s neighborhoods,” Bender said. “We’re excited to see the cleanup this leads to.”

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