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NOx-ious Regulation of the Trucking Industry

A few months back, in an article titled, Americans Like Big Trucks and We Cannot Lie, we discussed the dichotomy between the American tendency to buy large passenger vehicles and the pressure on the auto industry to meet ever more stringent fuel economy standards.  While passenger vehicle fuel economy ratings may get plenty of press coverage due to their inherent marketability, passenger vehicles do not enjoy an exclusive license over American roadways.  There are an estimated 15.5 million medium-heavy duty trucks on the road in America, with over 2,000,000 of them being tractor trailers.  Commercial haulers are not immune from government-imposed fuel efficiency standards. 

While suburban Mom’s 5,700 lb. fully loaded Ford Expedition Max may be the top dog in the parking lot at little Timmy’s soccer game, it cowers in the shadow of a big rig, which can weigh in at over 20,000 lbs. without a trailer.  For perspective, a modern Volvo D13 semi-truck engine weighs approximately 2,700 pounds— about the same as hipster Dad’s new Mini Cooper.  While suburban Mom’s F.E.M. chugs unleaded at a rate of a gallon every 18 miles, a semi-truck may go around 6 miles on a gallon of diesel.  It takes a lot of energy to keep big rig moving, energy harvested from fossil fuel.

Modern science tells us that burning fossil fuels has a deleterious impact on the environment and our Federal government agrees.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2011, heavy-duty trucks were the fastest growing contributors to greenhouse gas emissions within the transportation sector and accounted for twelve (12%) of all U.S. oil consumption.  The EPA estimated that nearly six (6%) percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and twenty (20%) percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, were produced by heavy-duty vehicles.  

In order to address these concerns, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the EPA, with support from the trucking industry, instituted a national program to reduce harmful air pollution by setting fuel efficiency and green-house gas emission standards for several categories of semi-trucks.  Beginning in model year 2014, big rigs were required to achieve up to a twenty (20%) percent reduction in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by model year 2018, saving up to 4 gallons of diesel for every 100 miles traveled.  Similarly, heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans were required to achieve a fifteen (15%) percent reduction in fuel consumption and greenhouse emissions by model year 2018.  At the time, the new standards were expected to result in significant savings and benefits over the lifetime of big rigs built between 2014 and 2018, including saving 530 million barrels of oil, saving $50 billion in fuel costs and ensuring long-term savings for vehicle owners investing in new technology.  

Although the real-world impact of the 2014 regulations is still being evaluated, on November 14, 2018, the EPA took the next step in reducing the trucking industry’s impact on the environment, launching the Cleaner Trucks Initiative (CTI), which aims to decease nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions from heavy-duty trucks and engines.  According to the EPA press office, the CTI will include future (i.e. 2020) rulemaking that will update the existing NOx standard, which was last set in 2001.  While the EPA acknowledges that U.S. NOx emissions have been trending in the right direction, dropping more than 40% between 2007 and 2017, the agency insists there is more work to be done.  As such, acting EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler stated that the CTI will capitalize on the existing trend of reducing NOx emissions and incentivize new technologies to ensure heavy-duty trucks are clean and remain a competitive method of transportation.  In addition to addressing NOx emissions standards, the CTI aims to cut unnecessary red tape while simplifying certification requirements for heavy-duty trucks and engines.  The EPA further stated that areas of deregulatory focus will include onboard diagnostic requirements and using cost-effective means of reassuring real world compliance by using modern and advanced technologies to curb concerns regarding recertification of engine families.  

While the EPA’s new regulations have some green appeal, they are not beyond reproach.  NOx makes up only six (6%) percent of the total greenhouse gas in the atmosphere (compared to CO2 at 81% and Methane at 10%) and existing measures have already substantially reduced the amount of NOx contributed by American automobiles.  Given the arguable utility of the new regulations, industry insiders may question the effect they may have on the marketplace.  It will be interesting to see how the new regulations will impact heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers, who are already facing razor thin margins and industry consolidation to meet market demands.  Will the new regulations end up hitting the trucking industry in the wallet?  Time will tell.  Please feel free to contact Benjamin Dill (bdill@setlifflaw.com) at 804-377-1272 or Steve Setliff (ssetliff@setlifflaw.com) at 804-377-1261 with any questions.