Mixed reviews for EPA bid to curb truck emissions

By Sean Reilly | 06/19/2015 01:13 PM EDT

This story was updated at 4:12 p.m. EDT.

U.S. EPA today unveiled proposed regulations that would tighten fuel efficiency standards to significantly cut carbon emissions from tractor-trailer rigs and other heavy- and medium-duty vehicles by 2027.

When fully phased in by that point, the new standards would cut greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption by up to 24 percent, the agency said in a news release this morning, and would reduce carbon pollution by 1 billion metric tons over the life span of vehicles sold under the program. For new truck buyers in 2027, improved fuel efficiency would pay for the cost of meeting the new standards within two years, the agency said.

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The proposal not only will save truck owners and consumers money, but will protect the environment and spur innovation, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a news release.

Other vehicles that would be covered by the proposed regulations include buses and light vans. While such vehicles make up just 5 percent of road traffic, they account for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and oil use in the transportation sector, according to EPA. And while the fuel efficiency of cars and light-duty trucks has climbed steadily over the years, the performance of heavy-duty trucks has remained stuck at just above 5 mpg since the late 1960s, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In a conference call with reporters this morning, neither Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, nor Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could say what the proposed standards would mean in terms of increased miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency.

"There is no number to give, because this proposal lays out performance standards," Rosekind said. But by another benchmark — which essentially measures the amount of freight that can be hauled per mile per gallon of fuel — the proposed regulations would eventually lead to a 50 percent improvement in efficiency, McCabe said.

Reaction was mixed among organizations that follow federal air policy. Welcoming the proposal was the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. The expected reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants "will benefit, literally, every community across the nation," Executive Director Bill Becker said in a statement.

Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ clean energy initiative, said the draft regulations continue EPA’s trend of combining ambitious targets with flexibility in meeting them.

"That the payback [time] is less than two years is very good news," she said.

Some environmental groups, however, had sought a 40 percent improvement in fuel economy by 2025 in comparison with 2010 levels. The proposed regulations don’t appear to meet that threshold, one analyst said.

"The bottom line seems to be that the overall stringency is lacking," said Therese Langer, transportation program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, who singled out the proposed engine standard as weak. "That’s something we’re looking to make some progress on in the comment period before the rule is finalized."

Today’s proposal represents the second phase of the Obama administration’s efforts to rein in truck emissions. The first, begun in 2011, was implemented using off-the-shelf technology. This round will rely in part on technology that’s still in development, McCabe acknowledged.

Fuel costs typically rank among the top expenses for truck fleet owners, according to the American Trucking Associations, where leaders expressed support for the proposal’s goals but voiced worries that it could lead to adoption of "unreliable" technologies if implemented too quickly.

"To prevent this, truck and engine manufacturers will need adequate time to develop solutions to meet these new standards," Glen Kedzie, the group’s energy and environmental counsel, said in a release.

In the conference call, however, Rosekind said the proposal offers "plenty of time" for the needed innovations to occur.

The proposed rule will have a 60-day public comment period when published in the Federal Register. It drew a more critical response from the National Automobile Dealers Association and American Truck Dealers.

Adding almost $12,000 to the cost of a new truck through potentially unproven technologies "is a great risk to a still-fragile economy," the two trade groups warned in a joint press release.

But the Aluminum Association, whose members have profited as automakers seek to improve fuel economy by lightening vehicle weights, promised the industry’s cooperation.

"The aluminum industry has a long history of working with transportation market manufacturers throughout the supply chain to develop vehicle efficiency improvement solutions," the association said in a statement. "That work will continue in the heavy-duty vehicle market, particularly as these new standards are finalized and implementation of the requirements begin."

Offering a different perspective was the military advisory board for CNA Corp. a nonprofit institution involved in analysis of defense issues. Speaking for the board, retired Air Force Gen. Ron Keys portrayed vehicle fuel economy as a national security matter.

Not only does improved efficiency lessen demand for imported oil, Keys said in a statement, the proposed rule will likely save lives on the battlefield, where fuel convoys "have become a primary target."

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