EPA announces tougher tailpipe pollution rule for trucks, vans and buses

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Manufacturers would have to reduce harmful tailpipe pollution from new trucks, delivery vans and buses under a long-awaited regulation the Biden administration finalized Tuesday — a rule that could protect public health in poor communities but does not go as far as many advocates hoped.

The regulation marks the first time the federal government has tried to crack down on emissions from these diesel-powered vehicles in over two decades, and it is aimed at improving the lives and health of Americans who live alongside highways, ports and sprawling distribution centers. Exposed to heavy diesel exhaust, these predominantly poor, Black and Latino communities suffer higher rates of asthma, heart disease and early death.

“This is a very aggressive action to protect the health of 72 million Americans and people living in these truck freight routes,” Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Regan said the EPA rule is the first part of a three-step plan to cut pollution and planet-warming emissions from trucks and buses. In spring, the administration plans to release a separate set of greenhouse gas rules for heavy-duty vehicles.

The new tailpipe rule — which will take effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register and apply beginning with model year 2027 — was the focus of heavy lobbying by vehicle makers, and it reflects the Biden administration’s struggle to crack down on pollution without inviting a legal backlash.

The regulation is likely to result in real health benefits, but it is sure to disappoint many public health advocates and liberals, who had pushed the EPA to be far more tough. It is not as stringent as California’s pollution regulations, which activists held up as a model for federal policy.

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The EPA said the new rule would require truck makers to reduce vehicles’ emissions of lung-damaging nitrogen dioxide 80 percent below the current standard. California’s rule calls for a 90 percent cut.

In a setback for California’s ability to set pollution standards that are tougher than the federal limits, the EPA also announced that it would postpone making a decision until early next year about whether to grant the state’s request for the waivers it needs to enforce its own policies . The delay leaves the state’s truck pollution rules in limbo and affects the other states that have already signed on to follow California’s regulations.

Tuesday’s finalized rule differs from one the EPA proposed earlier this year, and in writing it, the agency appears to have leaned into compromise.

Its proposal last March detailed two possible paths — one closer to California’s rule and a weaker alternative favored by truck makers. In an interview, Regan said the final regulation has pieces of both “to ensure the final standards are as strong as possible, take effect as soon as possible and will last as long as possible.”

EPA officials said the new pollution limits would prevent up to 2,900 premature deaths, 6,700 hospital admissions and emergency department visits, and 18,000 cases of childhood asthma by 2045.

The agency estimated that the new rule would deliver significant economic benefits, outweighing its costs by about $29 billion each year.

An analysis by the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation found that while tighter truck pollution standards would help people across the nation, Midwestern and Southern states stand to benefit the most, relative to their size, because of their busy highways and large concentrations of people living nearby.

Exactly what the new rule will mean for neighborhoods exposed to heavy diesel exhaust is uncertain. Experts said that whether the regulation makes deep cuts to emissions depends in large part on whether it closes some of the loopholes that have weakened previous federal rules.

The new rule does include an important change: For the first time, it regulates the pollution emitted from diesel-burning engines at low speeds, while idling, and in stop-and-go traffic. These emissions, which are most likely to affect people living in neighborhoods choked with truck traffic, were previously excluded.

But truck makers and their lobbyists have pushed the EPA to grant them other allowances that would make it easier for them to meet the new standards on paper, even if they exceed them in the real world.

The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, an industry group, warned the Biden administration against setting the bar too high, arguing that compliance would increase trucks’ cost, causing buyers to delay making new purchases and leaving older, dirtier, diesel-burning vehicles on the road for years.

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The United Auto Workers also expressed concerns. The union urged the administration to adopt a less strict standard for nitrogen dioxide out of concern that higher truck prices would cost its members jobs.

If the EPA grants California’s waiver requests next year, giving the state the ability to enforce its own limits on truck pollution, truck manufacturers are expected to sue. Industry representatives have said they would prefer to follow one national standard, and they have tried to discourage other states from adopting California’s tougher rules.

Diesel-burning trucks and buses are major polluters. Although their emissions have declined over the decades as technology improved, of all the vehicles on the nation’s roads, they are still the single biggest contributor to unhealthy air. The nitrogen dioxide they release reacts with chemicals in the atmosphere to create other pollutants, such as ozone and fine particles, that harm human health.

Earlier this year, an American Lung Association report estimated that switching to zero-emission trucks would prevent 66,800 premature deaths over the next 30 years.

Environmental justice advocates said they had hoped for a rule that would accelerate electrification by pushing fleet owners to replace their diesel-burning trucks and buses with zero-emission alternatives.

The new pollution policy is a “short-term solution,” said José Miguel Acosta Córdova, senior transportation policy analyst for the Chicago-based Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Little Village, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the city’s southwest, sits near major highways and railroads and has some of the dirtiest air in Chicago.

“There’s no amount of pollution that’s good — any exposure is bad — even if they’re cleaner trucks than they previously were,” Córdova said.