Trump EPA weighs new limits on truck pollution

Trump EPA weighs new limits on truck pollution
© Greg Nash

The Trump administration is embarking on what could be its first new regulation to reduce air pollution levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) kicked off its Cleaner Trucks Initiative Tuesday, under which officials will consider changes to the standard for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from heavy-duty trucks.

The initiative is a sharp contrast to the EPA’s agenda under the Trump administration, which has been dominated by dozens of actions to roll back or eliminate pollution rules for power plants, cars, oil and gas drillers and more.

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Tuesday that the initiative might lead to a reduction in the allowable NOx emissions level from truck engines, but it could also lead to other deregulatory actions to ease compliance for truck makers and trucking companies.

“This rulemaking will establish updated standards to address nitrogen oxide emissions from heavy-duty trucks. We will do this in a manner that improves air quality and protects public health without jeopardizing the historic economic growth we’re achieving under President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE,” Wheeler said at EPA headquarters, flanked by a big truck and representatives of various industries and states involved in the effort.

“Part of this initiative will be to also cut unnecessary red tape, while simplifying certification and compliance requirements for heavy-duty trucks,” he added.

“For the past three decades, additional regulatory requirements have been added to on-highway heavy-duty vehicles in a piecemeal fashion. This has resulted in some overly complex and costly requirements that do little to actually improve the environment.”

Some of the deregulatory items might include changing annual testing requirements, allowing alternative technologies for compliance and changing the testing for emissions controls.

Nitrogen oxide is one of the pollutants that can create both ozone and particulate matter, two substances that are harmful to humans’ respiratory systems. The substances can damage lung tissue, cause asthma attacks and shorten lives.

NOx emissions in the United States have dropped 52 percent since 2000, which was the last time the EPA updated the standard. But growing big-truck traffic is forecast to be responsible for about a third of NOx emissions from the transportation sector in 2025.

The EPA isn’t committing to a new rule or any other particular action, though Wheeler said it will likely result in a more stringent standard than is currently on the books. Tuesday’s announcement is merely the beginning of the regulatory process, and the agency hasn’t completed any regulatory paperwork, but it hopes to have a final rule on whatever it decides by the end of 2020.

“I believe at the end of the day we will be tightening the regulations. The point of this, I think, is you need to get the NOx reductions from the trucking sector in order to help nonattainment areas,” Wheeler said, referring to areas that do not meet air quality standards.

Bill Wehrum, head of the EPA’s air office, said that since the 2000 rule, some big factors have changed, including new technology that can help truck engines get cleaner and a realization that pollution testing procedures aren’t the best way to measure emissions.

“Frankly, my view for a long time has been this standard eventually is going to be revised,” he said told reporters. “It’s been almost 20 years, so the question is not whether it's revised, it’s when the standard is revised.”

Environmental and public health groups were cautiously optimistic about the EPA’s announcement.

“If EPA’s moving forward with a measure to clean up NOx emissions from trucks, that is a good thing and stands in contrast with all the other things that this administration has done with respect to rolling back and weakening air pollution protections from a wide array of sources,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

The trucking industry and companies that make trucks also expressed support, though they did not endorse any particular level for a new standard.

“It is good business to produce and to own and to drive cleaner, more fuel efficient trucks,” Bill Sullivan, head of advocacy for the American Trucking Associations, said at the EPA event.

“We — EPA, the manufacturers and other stakeholders represented here today — have done this before, working together. And we’re ready to step forward to do it again,” said Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association.

A group of local and state air quality agencies, led by California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District, had petitioned the EPA in 2016, under the Obama administration, to reduce the allowable NOx emissions from trucks. They wanted the standard to go from 0.2 grams per brake horsepower-hour to 0.02.

The EPA at the time told those agencies that it would formally consider the petition, but did not commit to an outcome.

Updated at 4:50 p.m.