California taking major steps to curb emissions from trucks

California recently adopted a landmark rule requiring more than half of all trucks sold in the state to be zero-emissions by 2035. Hiroko Tabuchi discusses latest developments on the New York Times website.


New Rule in California Will Require Zero-Emissions Trucks

Rebuffing strong opposition from industry, California on June 25th adopted a landmark rule requiring more than half of all trucks sold in the state to be zero-emissions by 2035, a move that is expected to improve local air quality, rein in greenhouse gas emissions and sharply curtail the state’s dependence on oil.

The rule, the first in the United States, represents a victory for communities that have long suffered from truck emissions — particularly pollution from the diesel trucks that feed the sprawling hubs that serve the state’s booming e-commerce industry. On one freeway in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, near the nation’s largest concentration of Amazon warehouses, a community group recently counted almost 1,200 delivery trucks passing in one hour.

Oil companies, together with farming and other industries, opposed the measure, calling it unrealistic, expensive and an example of regulatory overreach. Truck and engine manufacturers also opposed the rule, and began a last-ditch effort in March to delay it, saying companies were already suffering from the effects of the Covid-19 crisis.

But California, which two years ago set an ambitious target of reducing emissions of planet-warming gases by 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, held firm. The state’s clean air regulator, the California Air Resources Board, voted unanimously in favor of the rule at a meeting on Thursday.

“This is exactly the right time for this rule,” Mary Nichols, the board’s chairwoman, said in an interview. “We certainly know that the economy is in a rough shape right now, and there aren’t a lot of new vehicle sales of any kind. But when they are able to buy vehicles again, we think it’s important that they be investing in the cleanest kinds of vehicles.”

California’s new regulations put the state squarely at the forefront of U.S. climate policy, in diametrical opposition to the Trump administration, which has prioritized rolling back a slew of environmental regulations.

The state has already led a regulatory revolt against Washington over the Trump administration’s rollback of emissions standards for cars and light trucks, vowing to stick to more stringent requirements and taking the matter to court. California previously committed to buying only electric public transit buses by 2029, and to turn the entire bus fleet electric by 2040.

The new rule, which sets sales requirements for zero-emissions, electric versions of everything from big rigs to box trucks and delivery vans starting in 2024, has clear benefits. Under the rule, the percentage of electric trucks that must be sold would gradually increase each year, with an eventual goal that 100 percent of trucks be electric by 2045, from near zero today.

Transportation makes up 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is a major contributor to smog-causing nitrogen oxides and diesel particulate matter pollution, which are linked to health problems including respiratory conditions. Of those transportation sector emissions, as much as 70 percent of smog-causing pollution and 80 percent of particulate matter are from diesel trucks, even though they make up just 7 percent of the 30 million vehicles registered in California.

Removing diesel trucks from the roads would eliminate 60,000 tons of hazardous nitrogen oxides, preventing more than 900 premature deaths and delivering at least $9 billion in public health benefits, California estimates. It also estimates that the rule would lower the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by 17 million metric tons, roughly the same amount as pollution from burning almost 100,000 rail cars’ worth of coal, and save truck operators $6 billion in fuel costs.

Supporters also hope California will become a hub for what they expect will be a thriving electric truck manufacturing industry. Amazon said last year that it had ordered 100,000 electric trucks from Rivian, a manufacturing start-up. Other major truck makers, including Daimler, Volvo, Tesla and China’s BYD, are developing electric heavy trucks of their own.

“I believe this rule will be transformative,” said Paul Cort, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice. “At some point, if you’re a truck manufacturer and the majority of your sales are zero emissions, you’re going to start to wonder why you’re still producing combustion versions of these trucks.”

For Anthony Victoria, a community organizer in the Inland Empire, which has a large Latinx population, a cleaner trucks mandate has been a long time coming. Logistics helped sustain his family: His late mother worked in a warehouse, and his father was a truck driver. Research has shown that nationwide, lower-income communities of color, like those in the Inland Empire, are exposed to significantly higher levels of pollution.

But as the rise of e-commerce has boosted the region’s logistics industry, the pollution became harder to ignore. In 2018, the region exceeded federal smog standards for almost 90 days straight. In its latest assessment, the American Lung Association warned residents of wider San Bernardino county: “The air you breathe may put your health at risk.”

Mr. Victoria’s organization, the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, has now started to organize truck counts, with volunteers using clickers and clipboards to record the amount of traffic racing by. On Feb. 12, on State Route 60 near the Amazon hub, he and his colleagues counted 1,161 trucks in a single hour. The group later presented that number at a state regulatory hearing.

“You’re talking about upward of 21,500 trucks that travel through our communities per day,” he said. “Children oftentimes can’t play outside on certain days because the air quality is so bad.” And the pandemic has not slowed the truck traffic, given that more people have been shopping online.

Rachael L. Lighty, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said the online retailer’s Rivian order was the largest ever order of electric delivery vehicles. To help meet a goal to make 50 percent of all shipments carbon neutral by 2030, Amazon plans to put 10,000 new vehicles on the road as early as 2022, and 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030, she said.

Attention now turns to the 14 states and the District of Columbia that have followed California’s lead in adhering to stricter emissions standards for passenger vehicles. California said it is already in talks with seven states and the District of Columbia to cooperate on electric trucks.

The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, which represents makers of internal combustion engines and trucks, has continued to argue that the industry, reeling from the pandemic, is hardly ready for tougher environmental regulations. “This is not a business-as-usual situation, and it should not be a regulation-as-usual situation, either,” it said in a letter to regulators in March.

The Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobby group that represents oil companies like Chevron and Marathon Petroleum and which opposed the rule said that reducing emissions required keeping “all technologies on the table” including diesel. “Now is not the time to close ourselves off to creative solutions and technologies because of political divides,” said Tiffany Roberts, the group’s vice president of regulatory affairs. In a joint letter to California regulators in December, sent together with the California Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups, the petroleum association said that the rule would “not work in the real world.”

Still, the new rules have received strong political backing. In response to the industry’s concerns, 36 state lawmakers urged Gov. Gavin Newsom of California to “resist attempts by polluting industries to exploit our current crisis to loosen, rollback or delay” environmental rules. “Now more than ever, even as the federal administration works to dismantle fundamental regulations, we must uphold our commitment to safeguard Californians’ well-being,” they wrote.

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