A proposal by California regulators to phase out the sale of new diesel big rigs and other gas-powered trucks by 2040 is facing backlash by environmentalists who say the state isn’t moving quickly enough and the trucking industry, which says the mandates are not feasible.
The state Air Resources Board got an earful from both camps at a public hearing Thursday.
The proposal, as currently written, would require that certain truck fleets in California deploy electric vehicles by 2024 and set 2040 as the end date for sales of new medium-and heavy-duty internal combustion vehicles. It would build off of a clean trucks regulation passed in 2020 and follow a regulation approved in August to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2030.
Other provisions of the proposed regulation would:
Mandate that all new drayage trucks — generally heavy-duty trucks that transport bulk freight between port and rail facilities and distribution centers — sold in California be electric by 2024. Companies would need to completely retire any diesel or gas-powered drayage trucks by 2035.
Certain vehicles with two engines, such as military tactical vehicles, heavy cranes, emergency vehicles and snow removal trucks, would be excluded.
The board is slated to hold a second hearing on the proposal in the coming months before taking a final vote on the regulation in the spring of 2023.
“These actions can show the world how to simultaneously address the climate crisis, improve air quality and alleviate key concerns identified by communities,” said board chair Liane Randolph, noting that California was once again setting the tone for the rest of the nation.
Trucks contribution to California’s greenhouse gas emissions
California’s transportation sector accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, with diesel trucks contributing a disproportionate amount. According to the Air Resources Board, trucks make up 1.8 million of the 30 million registered vehicles in California — just 6% — yet they contribute a quarter of the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions and a third of the Nitrogen Oxide emissions.
Exposure to diesel engine exhaust can cause both immediate and long-term health issues from headaches and nausea to inflammation of the lungs and cancer.
Proponents argue that passage of the proposed regulations is a critical step toward reaching the state’s public health and climate goals and air quality standards. A new state law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom mandates that California achieve carbon neutrality across all sectors by 2045.
The Air Resources Board estimates that the electrification of the trucking industry could help save the lives of thousands of Californians and result in a $46.9 billion net benefit for the state, including savings for companies and in health benefits for residents. Although state officials have not released cost projections tied to the proposal, they forecast that the benefits will outweigh the costs through 2050.
Ray Pringle of the Sierra Club of California called the package of rules a “good start” but added that it “needs to be stronger.”
Environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice are pushing the state to accelerate the ban, moving up the deadline from 2040 to 2036. They also want the board to redefine “high priority fleets” as any entity with 10 or more trucks, rather than 50.
Brenda Soto of the People’s Collective came to Sacramento on Thursday with a caravan of residents and organizers from California’s Inland Empire, an area with some of the nation’s worst-quality air. It has experienced a boom of warehouse construction in recent years, which in turns means more trucks on the road and increased pollution in the air.
Soto urged the board to take a strict stance in order to help remedy decades of environmental harms done to Inland Empire, particularly to its residents of color.
“We are fighting a battle with little help from government agencies who have the power to change policies that can help our communities breath clean air,” she said.
Is California ready to swap out diesel trucks for electric?
Although many environmentalists and trucking industry representatives agree that a shift away from diesel is necessary in the long-term, they disagree over how quickly it should take place.
During Thursday’s meeting, trucking company owners and union representatives raised concerns about the availability of zero emissions trucks and charging infrastructure, as well as the grid’s ability to meet the increased demand. The California Energy Commission estimates that 157,000 chargers will be necessary by 2030 to support the electrification of heavy-duty trucks.
For long-haul trucks and motor coaches, which can currently travel up to 1,000 miles before taking a break to refuel, an electrification mandate could add hours to a trip when you consider stopping and waiting to fully charge, according to industry representatives.
Mike Tunnel, director of environmental affairs for the American Trucking Associations, told the board his members have been evaluating ways to successfully deploy zero emission technologies. However, he said, zero emissions trucks are not currently capable of dealing with the demands of the industry.
“The regulations simply does not address a number of circumstances where the performance of zero emission trucks or the charging infrastructure is inadequate,” Tunnel said.
Rex Hime of the California Business Properties Association echoed a similar sentiment, voicing concerns about commercial availability of zero emission trucks, as well as lacking technology and infrastructure.
“California will feel the negative reverberation of this rule, if not fixed, in the form of another toilet paper or baby formula shortage resulting in compromising the delivery of essential goods and services,” Hime said.
The uncertainty around the industry’s readiness and potential unintended consequences gave some board members pause.
“This is a very large undertaking, so I’m not trying to box people in to an enforcement situation,” said board member Sandra Berg. “I’m trying to understand where the grid problems are going to be and how they can be resolved.”
But others were undeterred by the pushback, instead siding with environmental groups advocating for even stricter provisions.
“We cannot afford to continue throwing our communities away,” said board member Diane Takvorian, “and that’s what we’re doing if we don’t move forward with strong, strong measures that are really going to bring these health benefits.”
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