Four years ago, in August 2011, U.S. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced the first federal program to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s biggest vehicles by raising the fuel standards those heavy-duty fleets must meet.
The agencies implemented that plan — the Heavy-Duty National Program — last year.
In the next few days, the agencies are expected to roll out a new proposal, the second phase of their plan to lower emissions from heavy-duty vehicles like tractor-trailers, city buses, delivery vans and cement mixers.
The Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among other environmental groups, have called for the government to back a 40 percent increase in fuel economy by 2025 from 2010 levels. However, some industry groups have said that target may be asking too much, forcing businesses to invest heavily on new engines, vehicle bodies, transmissions and other parts of the truck chassis to meet government requirements.
Still other advocacy groups are hoping for a 46 percent fuel reduction in that same time frame for 18-wheelers, said Glen Kedzie, vice president for energy and environmental affairs at the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the industry’s leading trade group.
"They can go ahead and put whatever numbers they want out there," Kedzie said. Phase I "captured the lower fruit on the tree," he said, adding that the ATA supported the initial phase. "It has to work out on paper," he said of Phase II. "We’re anxious to see the rule come out."
From the mid-1960s through 2010, miles-per-gallon performance for light-duty vehicles has climbed steadily: Most passenger cars averaged about 24 mpg in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, up from below 15 mpg in 1966.
Yet fuel performance for heavy-duty trucks has remained flat, just above 5 mpg, for the past 4 ½ decades.
In February last year, bookended by two semi-trucks in a Safeway shipping depot in Maryland, President Obama announced the timeline for Phase II, pitching the measure as a boon to U.S. manufacturing, a step toward emissions cuts and a policy that would save families’ budgets through better mileage and trickle-down paybacks.
"By improving the aerodynamics of its trucks, investing in larger trailers, more efficient tires, Safeway has improved its own fuel efficiency," Obama said that February.
"Improving gas mileage for these trucks is going to drive down our oil imports even further," he continued. "That reduces carbon pollution even more, cuts down on businesses’ fuel costs, which should pay off in lower prices for consumers."
Heavy-duty trucks, the president said, carry 70 percent of the goods shipped within U.S. borders and make up 4 percent of highway automobiles while generating 20 percent of the transportation sector’s emissions. According to the ATA, trucks transported almost 10 billion tons — about 69 percent — of all domestic freight.
‘Unprecedented’ government outreach?
In multiple interviews, representatives from trade associations, manufacturers, fleet owners, environmental organizations and other advocacy groups said meetings with EPA and NHTSA have been amicable — a sharp contrast with the political tension that has surrounded Clean Power Plan discussions.
Several people who have met with the regulators said agency officials have been "unprecedented" in their outreach for input. Firms within the trucking supply chain largely see the benefits of going farther on a gallon of fuel but worry about how the law will be deployed.
"Most folks in the industry didn’t even know there was an emissions change," said Brian Mormino, executive director of worldwide environmental strategy compliance at Cummins, the engine and car equipment manufacturer valued at $25 billion, of the Phase I launch.
"Everyone recognizes you’re not going to get everything you want out of a rule," he said. Asked about achieving the standards, he added: "We’re confident we have the technology."
In the trucking business, with substantial overhead costs, shaving a few percentage points off fixed costs can make a significant difference.
A Class 8 tractor trailer, the type of multi-axle vehicle used on highways, may travel between 100,000 and 120,000 miles a year, Mormino said, making even a 1- or 2-percent cut in the operator’s fuel costs substantial.
In a 2014 report, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), part of ATA, found fuel costs were easily the biggest expenses for trucking carriers, behind driver wages, from 2008 to 2013.
Trucking firms had to pay about 65 cents per mile for fuel in 2013, too, with average per-mile costs hovering around 50 cents from 2008 to 2013.
Based on that figure, a line-haul truck that covered 100,000 miles in a year would run through $50,000 worth of fuel. Class 8 trucks vary in cost from the $100,000 range for a new vehicle to roughly half that price or less for a used option.
"The bottom line for fleets will be a benefit for trucks," said Luke Tonachel, an analyst and director of the National Resource Defense Council’s clean vehicles and fuels project.
Crisper engines, more advanced transmissions, more fuel-efficient tires and better axle design are all steppingstones for truck owners to achieve the agencies’ objectives, Tonachel said, adding that the fuel savings will "far outweigh" the investment upfront in new automotive hardware.
"They are fuel- and technology-agnostic," he said of the standards, which are based on the vehicles’ performance. "This is really a win for the environment as well as the economy."
Phase I of the plan applied to vehicles built between 2014 and 2018 and weighing more than 8,500 pounds, thresholds that cover most trucks larger than small light-duty pickups, as well as semi-trucks, heavy-duty trucks, vans and vocational vehicles, such as garbage trucks and moving vans.
EPA and NHTSA have said they intend to regulate truck trailers in future rules, and many expect regulators to include trailers under Phase II. Phase I covered four greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons.
For one company, natural gas is the answer
The rule is not targeted just at big shippers. Unlike many of the companies the rule will blanket, Waste Management Inc. (WM) needs its vehicles to be fuel-efficient in start-stop city traffic and in alleyways, a far cry from cross-country shipping.
Through "compactors, levers on the lift" and other machinery, said Kerry Kelly, senior director of federal affairs at WM, "We burn up to 20 percent of our fuel standing still."
WM has tested electric, diesel and hybrid garbage trucks, she said, but the company hasn’t seen the fuel savings it was looking for. Instead, WM is focusing on natural gas trucks. Nine of 10 new truck purchases, Kelly said, are natural gas-propelled.
"We feel that those trucks are going to pay for themselves," she said. "Simply changing from diesel to natural gas gives us a 20 percent reduction."
The company has 73 compressed natural gas fueling stations and 262 landfills where the company can trap its own gas for later use. "It’s this really nice closed-loop picture," Kelly said.
Yet discussions with EPA have focused primarily on gasoline and diesel fuels, not alternative options such as natural gas, said Kedzie, the ATA expert.
"From the beginning, we thought a 50 percent reduction in fuel usage either by 2025 or 2027 was not unreasonable," said Jack Gillis, public affairs director for the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group.
Because fuel is such a large part of trucking owners’ and operators’ budgets, the payback through fuel savings should come shortly, Gillis said.
"The first beneficiaries are going to be the shippers and those entities paying those shipping costs," he said. "Businesses typically operate with more logic than consumers do."
The companies that own heavy-duty trucks and have to foot the bill for upgrades will probably be the most resistant to the expected rule, Gillis said.
"We sit in an interesting position where we’re neither engine nor vehicle," said Mihai Dorobantu, director of technology planning and government affairs for Eaton Corp., which makes components for drivetrains — the units that transfer torque from vehicles’ engines out to the wheels.
"We see that target as being high but also achievable," he said when asked about the 40 percent benchmark, adding that he and his colleagues have not seen target numbers yet. "There’s lots of space on the transmission side."
Nonetheless, Dorobantu added: "I would say there’s a lot of concern about the cost of new technology that would be needed for compliance."