Biden Administration Stops Short of Electric Vehicle Mandates for Trucks

The EPA clean trucks proposal released this week focuses on cleaner combustion engines, but environmental justice advocates want a zero-emissions transition.

Shipping container trucks sit in traffic in Long Beach, California, at the busiest seaport complex in the nation. on November 29, 2012 in Long Beach, California. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images.

Shipping container trucks sit in traffic in Long Beach, California, at the busiest seaport complex in the nation. on November 29, 2012 in Long Beach, California. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images.

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When Angelo Logan was growing up in the city of Commerce, California, in the 1970s, he remembers how residents used to call the weeks leading up to Christmas the “truck season.”

That’s when 18-wheelers would converge on a manufacturing center nestled between two interstate highways to pick up goods to deliver across the country. The factories eventually closed, but the freeways and the railyard only got busier. Traffic escalated as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach expanded, and today Commerce is a byway for the busiest international business hub in the United States.

“Now, there is no ‘truck season,’ because truck season is every day,” Logan said. Commerce, with a population that is 95 percent Hispanic, is part of a transportation corridor that state officials say has among the highest health risks in California associated with air pollution. 

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Logan is co-founder of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, part of a nationwide coalition that has pushed for President Joe Biden’s administration to take aggressive action against truck pollution. The coalition, called the Moving Forward Network, argues that a strong move toward electrification of trucks gives Biden a chance to act both on climate change and the disproportionate environmental burden borne by people living in communities of color.

But on Monday, the Biden Environmental Protection Agency released a clean trucks proposal that focuses on achieving cleaner diesel combustion engines, but includes no mandates for zero-emissions vehicles. The administration plan is to enact a rule that would cut smog-forming nitrogen oxide pollution (NOx) from trucks by as much as 60 percent by 2045, while putting off  decisions on tougher standards for greenhouse gas emissions, fuel economy and electrification that it plans to roll out over the next three years.

The Biden administration acknowledged that more needs to be done, especially to address pollution affecting the 72 million Americans, primarily poorer people of color, who live near truck freight routes.

 “These overburdened communities are directly exposed to pollution that causes respiratory and cardiovascular problems, among other serious and costly health effects,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. 

But the proposal showed that the administration had also heard the truck manufacturing industry’s argument that if the new standards were too aggressive and the price of new vehicles rises too rapidly, fleet operators might simply continue running older trucks in heavy traffic areas. Despite the administration’s concessions, the truck industry’s view is that even the current proposal may go too far. “This new standard simply may not be technologically feasible,” Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, told The New York Times.

Both advocates of tougher truck standards and the manufacturers have vowed to continue pressing their cases as the EPA takes public comments in the coming weeks, with an aim to finalize the rule later in the year.

 The Most Effective Strategy for Reducing Disparities

Trucks are the biggest polluters on the nation’s highways, but they’ve gotten far less attention from regulators than passenger vehicles. The Biden administration’s proposal, if adopted, would be the first tightening of tailpipe standards for heavy-duty vehicles in more than 20 years.

Although trucks account for only 4 percent of U.S. vehicles, they generate 23 percent of the greenhouse gas pollution from transportation, half of the NOx emissions and 60 percent of the fine particulate pollution. And the increase in freight transportation of consumer goods last year helped drive U.S. carbon emissions to rebound quickly from pre-pandemic levels in 2021, according to Rhodium Group.

The unprecedented drop in economic activity due to the coronavirus gave scientists a unique opportunity to study patterns of truck pollution. What they found bolstered the arguments that transportation hub communities have been making for years about the unfair environmental burden they bear. 

Using satellite observations, researchers at Argonne National Lab and George Washington University found that the nation’s least white census tracts had nearly triple the NOx pollution of white tracts. Although those overburdened communities saw the largest drops in pollution when lockdowns went into place in 2020, the initial disparity was so large that they continued to face higher NOx levels than those found in white communities before the pandemic.

“Heavy-duty diesel vehicles…  maintained more or less the same activity levels during the COVID-19 lockdowns, continue to be a major contributor to urban NOx emissions, and use highways and interstates disproportionately located in marginalized communities,” the researchers said in a study published last year. “Targeting NOx emissions from heavy-duty diesel vehicles is likely the most effective strategy for reducing disparities across cities nationwide.”

The Biden EPA, in fact, included a detailed demographic analysis in its truck proposal that concluded that while the rule would reduce human exposure to smog for all population groups, those that would benefit the most would be the predominantly non-white communities that have the greatest NOx exposure.

But advocates for trucking hub communities argue that it’s not enough to reduce the tailpipe emissions from the conventional diesel-powered engines used in almost all big trucks. If truck traffic continues to grow, the emissions from less polluting diesel vehicles will still add up to a significant burden for their communities. The trend seems clear around the Port of Los Angeles, which last year became the first port in the western hemisphere to handle more than 10 million 20-foot cargo containers over a 12-month period.

“It’s absolutely imperative that we transition out of combustion,” Logan said. “We care about jobs, but if you can’t breathe, you can’t work. We care about education, but if you can’t breathe, you can’t go to school. All the work that folks are doing to uplift themselves, they get chopped down with every breath that they take.”

Advocates Favor a Move to Zero-Emission Trucks and Buses 

Environmental justice advocates would like to see the EPA adopt air pollution standards ensuring that all sales of medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses are zero-emissions vehicles by 2040. That was the goal adopted by 15 nations at the global climate summit in Glasgow last fall, the first-ever global agreement on zero-emission trucks and buses. China, Germany and the United States were among the countries that did not sign onto that pledge. 

The state of California, which has studied technology and the economics of a move to zero-emission trucks and buses, concluded that it is feasible to begin the transition now. Under rules adopted two years ago by California Air Resources Board, beginning in 2024, truck manufacturers will be required to sell zero-emission vehicles as a percentage of their annual California sales, with the target increasing each year. Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington have followed suit in adopting rules requiring a phase-in of zero-emissions trucks.

Clearly, the first truck fleets to electrify likely will be those engaged in short-haul pickup and delivery. Amazon, which  has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2040, sent a huge signal to the market when it ordered 100,000 electric  trucks from the start-up Rivian. UPS has announced it is buying 10,000 electric delivery vehicles, while FedEx has pledged that its entire pickup and delivery fleet will be battery-powered by 2040.

Meanwhile, a handful of manufacturers are competing to develop marketable electric-powered 18-wheelers, including carmakers Volvo and Daimler as well as truck-focused manufacturers like MAN and Scania, according to Autoweek. Freightliner, a subsidiary of Daimler, already has about 40 test electric trucks on the road.

Advocates of federal electric vehicle mandates for trucks argue it is important to consider that the higher upfront costs are offset over time by much lower maintenance and fuel costs. A study by Roush Industries commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund and released last month concluded that by 2027, there will be cost parity between electric trucks and conventional trucks in many segments of the market if the total cost of ownership is considered. The study estimated it would only take electric truck purchasers one to two years to make back their additional initial investment due to the lower maintenance and fuel costs. That study was done before the runup in fuel prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; if oil prices stay high, the payback period will be even shorter.

Because the Biden EPA’s truck rule won’t take effect until the 2027 model year, environmental advocates say now is the time to put zero-emissions vehicle targets in place.

“NOx controls for diesel vehicles are critically important—we strongly support them and delivering those reductions is essential,” said Peter Zalzal, senior counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. “But there is an important opportunity to go to zero now, in a way that is incredibly cost-effective, and that will save trucker fleets money.”

 An Industry Laser-Focused on the Bottom Line

The truck industry, however, has conducted its own studies of the cost of electric vehicles, and its estimates consistently have been higher than those of either environmentalists or the state of California.

“We’re committed to a zero-emission future for the commercial vehicle industry,” said Mandel, of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association. “But it’s going to take a lot of work that we as manufacturers can’t control. We’re developing the technology, our members are investing literally billions of dollars. You can buy a zero emissions truck today; I’m sure my members would be happy to show you. They’re two to three times more expensive than a diesel truck.”

Truck buyers are laser-focused on the bottom line, Mandel said. If truck-makers are putting out vehicles that cost too much, or if there isn’t enough EV charging infrastructure available for heavy-duty vehicles, they will simply hold on to and retool their old vehicles. If this happens, Mandel said, people who live in disadvantaged communities will be hurt the most.

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“The disadvantaged communities are not likely to get the newest, most expensive trucks come 2027,” he said. “They’re going to get the trucks that are on their second, third, and even fourth and fifth life. It’s important that the fleet turns over so they get the cleanest trucks because fleets will tend to operate their older trucks around ports and warehouses.”

The Biden EPA said it intends to more comprehensively address the issue of how best to accelerate zero emissions vehicles across the truck sector in a separate greenhouse gas emissions standard that would take effect beginning in model year 2030. The White House budget office, which signs off on the cost-benefit analysis of new regulatory proposals, had more than two dozen meetings with environmentalists, community groups and industry representatives in the past three months. The agency said it is weighing the concerns of all the stakeholders, as well as the impact on consumers.

In a statement, EPA said its goal is “to deliver significant and needed public health benefits by designing a program that sets ambitious standards and that are feasible for the trucking industry, after giving appropriate consideration to cost and other factors, while supporting the American economy.”