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California poised to ban new diesel trucks

This story appeared on Calmatters

A fleet of Tesla Semis on display at PepsiCo Beverages North America's Sacramento facility on April 11, 2023. PBNA hosted an event to celebrate the arrival of 18 Tesla Semi-trucks to its Sacramento location. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

In summary

Trucking companies say the deadlines for converting big rigs, delivery trucks and other heavy vehicles are unachievable and will cause “chaos and dysfunction” of California’s economy. The move is designed to clean communities’ air, especially near ports, warehouses and freeways.

California’s trucking industry is bracing for state regulators this week to enact unprecedented rules that would ban sales of new diesel big rigs by 2036 and convert large companies’ existing trucks to zero emissions by 2042.

“The amount of chaos and dysfunction that is going to be created by this rule will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” said Chris Shimoda, senior vice president of the California Trucking Association, an industry trade group. “The likelihood that it is going to fail pretty spectacularly is very high. It’s very unfortunate.” 

The state Air Resources Board will hold a public hearing on its proposed regulation on Thursday, then is expected to vote on Friday.

The proposal aims to clean up noxious diesel exhaust and greenhouse gases spewed by big rigs, garbage trucks, delivery trucks and other large vehicles by converting them to models powered by electricity or hydrogen.

Trucking companies and local government officials call the deadlines in the rule unachievable. They say the new technology still has major drawbacks, including the high cost of electric trucks and their low vehicle range. The state also has not yet developed a charging network to support electric trucks, and the existing chargers can take hours to recharge, industry officials say.

A truck arrives at a Port of Oakland shipping terminal in Oakland on Nov. 10, 2021. AP Photo/Noah Berger
A truck arrives at a Port of Oakland shipping terminal on Nov. 10, 2021. AP Photo/Noah Berger

A worldwide first, California’s rules would transform how goods are transported throughout the state, adding millions of new, pollution-free trucks on the roads. The state currently has very few large, zero-emission vehicles: only 1,943 in California — and nearly all of them are buses.

Unveiled last September, the air board’s proposal would set aggressive timelines for the purchase and manufacture of zero-emission medium and heavy-duty trucks. The move is considered a critical part of California’s strategy to clean up its severe smog, switch to clean energy, end its reliance on fossil fuels and become carbon neutral by 2045.

Under the proposal, in 2036, 100% of new sales of medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks must be zero emissions in California, scaling up from phased-in timelines that vary by the type of truck. The rules also would force companies that operate 50 or more trucks to gradually convert their fleets into electric or hydrogen models, reaching 100% zero-emissions by 2042, with these timelines also based on the type of truck.

The earliest requirements would be for drayage trucks, which carry cargo to and from the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland and cause severe air pollution in nearby communities. All of them must be converted to electric models by 2035, and new sales beginning in 2024 must be zero emissions. 

The state requirements to switch existing truck fleets to zero emissions by 2042 would apply to “high-priority fleets,” which are owned or operated by companies with 50 or more trucks or $50 million or more in annual revenue, and to federal trucks.

Included are all vehicles weighing 8,500 lbs or more, as well as package delivery vehicles, including U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS and Amazon fleets. 

The proposal builds on a previous state clean trucks regulation, enacted in 2020, that mandated the number of zero-emission trucks that manufacturers must sell from 2024 through 2035.

California’s truck rules are “going to have significantly positive implications for both air quality and for pushing the market forward,” said Sam Wilson, a senior vehicles analyst in the clean transportation program at the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists. 

Still, he said the air board “missed an opportunity” to strengthen the rule, by failing to set stricter requirements for fleets with fewer than 50 trucks.

“We want to be mindful of the concerns of those who are regulated, but we also know that we have health benefits that we need to achieve. Getting that balance is a really critical part.”

Air Resources Board Executive Officer Steven Cliff

Trucking companies and local governments say fundamental changes are needed in California to help them meet the proposed timelines to stop buying new diesel trucks and phase out their existing diesels.

Large trucks are more difficult and expensive to convert to electric models than cars because of their size, weight and long distances that they’re driven. 

But air board officials said they are confident that the truck market can adjust in time to speed the transition to electric models. 

“All of the provisions are intended to address those concerns that stakeholders brought forward, including needing to move more aggressively in some areas and needing to provide flexibility in others,” said Air Resources Board Executive Officer Steven Cliff.

“We want to be mindful of the concerns of those who are regulated, but we also know that we have health benefits that we need to achieve. Getting that balance is a really critical part of the overall approach,” he said.

The proposed rule could put about 510,000 carbon-free medium and heavy-duty vehicles on California’s roads in 2035, increasing to 1.2 million in 2045 and about 1.7 million in 2050, according to the air board. 

The trucks that would be affected by the new rule make up just 7% of the vehicles on California’s roads — about 1.8 million out of 30 million. But they are the single largest source of air pollution from vehicles, representing about 70% of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and 80% of carcinogenic diesel soot, according to the air board.

Communities near ports, warehouses ‘suffer a lot’

Truck emissions hang heavy in the air in much of the Inland Empire, Los Angeles County and the Central Valley, where many disadvantaged and low-income residents like Ada Trujillo live. Trujillo is a 42-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who has lived in San Bernardino for more than 20 years. The region is home to explosive growth of warehouses, where air pollution comes from idling trucks that transport goods.

Trujillo said diesel pollution has been increasingly causing health problems for her family.  She doesn’t allow her children to play outside for long periods of time due to the headaches, eye and skin allergies, nose bleeds and breathing problems that they experience.

Diesel exhaust is one of the most harmful air pollutants, since it is a known cause of cancer, and it contains fine particles that can trigger heart attacks and asthma.

Trujillo said in Spanish that her children “do suffer a lot,” adding that “as a mother, it worries me. We live close to these warehouses and we keep seeing more of them in our communities.” 

California has been cutting emissions from diesel and gas-powered vehicles for decades. The new proposal comes less than nine months after California enacted another far-reaching mandate that bans sales of gas-powered cars by 2035. 

California often prides itself on being a leader in setting stringent vehicle standards that other states follow. Six other states adopted the 2020 California trucks rule, with Colorado and Maryland being the most recent states to enact them, just this week.

“If the rule moves forward…you are going to see a lot of the same problems that we had during the pandemic. It’s a supply chain crisis of our own making.”

Chris Shimoda, California Trucking Association

The trucking industry said unresolved issues could pose serious challenges for an already strained supply chain and the state’s economy. 

“If the rule moves forward and is implemented the way that it’s written today, you are going to see a lot of the same problems that we had during the pandemic, but we created the problem,” Shimoda of the California Trucking Association said. “It’s a supply chain crisis of our own making.” 

The air board staff earlier this year made some minor changes in their proposal for garbage truck operators who raised concerns at a public hearing in October. They issued a revised version of the proposal in March that delays electrification phase-in dates for fleets that run on biogas captured from landfills, wastewater facilities and compost. 

But the most significant change in the proposal actually toughened the rules after an appeal by environmental justice advocates: The original proposal required 100% zero-emission truck sales in 2040; the air board staff accelerated it by four years at the request of some board members.

Local governments call the deadlines ‘impossible’

It’s not just the trucking industry that is vehemently opposed. Local governments are opposed, too, since they own truck fleets. With some exceptions, half of the specified truck purchases for public agencies must be zero emissions by 2024, ramping up to 100% by 2027. Some exemptions apply if there are a lack of available models. 

In a letter to the air board, the League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties and the California Special Districts Association said the air board is “overlooking some important realities” and that fulfilling the timeline would be “impossible.” 

The coalition of local officials is urging the board to delay the rule’s deadline by four years, adopt more exemptions and impose price caps on the electric models to keep them more affordable. 

The local leaders wrote that the proposal “ignores existing market realities and the time needed to develop and ramp up an infrastructural system that can support an electrified fleet of essential vehicles.”

 “The vehicles don’t exist, the infrastructure does not exist, grid reliability is sketchy, there’s nothing to protect public agencies from price gouging, and no one seems willing to discuss where the money will come from — other than raising rates on consumers,” their letter said.

The rule banning diesel and gasoline truck sales would not apply to emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks.

 “The vehicles don’t exist, the infrastructure does not exist, grid reliability is sketchy, there’s nothing to protect public agencies from price gouging.”

League of California Cities, State Association of Counties and California Special Districts Association in a letter to the air board

Some entrepreneurs are hoping to ramp up construction ion truck charging stations in time to meet the timeline.

The technology exists, it’s just a matter of getting it ready, said Scott Fisher, a senior vice president at Voltera, a company developing medium and heavy-duty truck charging stations. 

To help bring some costs down for trucking companies, Voltera and similar companies have been developing new business models where they build the charging stations, and own and operate them so the trucking companies do not have to make those investments, he said. 

“We’re mindful of the challenges in terms of fleets complying with this rule and we think we have a way to help,” he said. “The fleet basically doesn’t have to spend the money… They get this charging infrastructure as a service, which is more of an operational month-to-month cost rather than an upfront capital investment.” 

Companies and other fleet owners affected by the rule could choose to comply in two ways: They could only purchase zero-emission vehicles beginning in 2024 while retiring diesel trucks at the end of their useful life. Or they could phase in zero-emission trucks as a percentage of their fleet, starting with 10% of delivery trucks and other types that are the easiest to electrify in 2025, then ramping up to 100% between 2035 and 2042. 

The requirements for converting fleets would not apply to smaller companies unless they were using a larger company’s trucks. 

Air board officials plan to create a future rule for smaller operators with fleets under 50 vehicles, according to Tony Brasil, chief of the air board’s transportation and technology branch. 

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