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Under pressure to phase out diesel-powered trucks, major manufacturers have offered plenty of assurances. Volvo plans to be “fossil free” by 2040 and boasted in its latest annual report that it was “leading the transformation” of the industry. Daimler Truck, the largest maker of heavy trucks globally, has set a goal of selling only carbon-neutral trucks and buses in the United States, Europe and Japan by 2039.
But behind the scenes, the truck industry’s lobbyists are working to delay that clean-truck future. The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, which represents the nation’s largest truck manufacturers, has pushed to weaken tougher federal rules curbing planet-warming gases and other pollutants. The industry has also led a campaign against a new California rule, adopted by five other states, that would require manufacturers to sell more zero-emission trucks.
If truck makers win, environmentalists argue, they will be able to continue selling diesel vehicles for longer, postponing a transition to electric power.
“What we’re seeing from their lobbying is they want to commit to as little as possible,” said Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Promises in press releases don’t actually mean anything. They can say we’re setting a target, we’re spending money, but that doesn’t have to produce results.”
While the push to convert America’s passenger cars to electric power is accelerating, the same transition for medium- and heavy-duty trucks has just begun. Truck makers say they can only move as quickly as the market allows, while environmentalists counter that these companies have already waited too long to electrify and will keep dragging their feet without hard deadlines.
Policymakers are targeting the sector because it accounts for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles in the United States and generates harmful pollutants that cost thousands of lives each year. A recent American Lung Association report estimates switching to zero-emission trucks would prevent 66,800 premature deaths over the next 30 years.
Truck makers and their lobbyists say they don’t see a disconnect between their public and private actions.
Dawn Fenton, vice president of government relations and public affairs for Volvo Group North America, said the company is “very committed to eventually getting to 100 percent fossil free by 2040.”
But she said government mandates don’t account for supply-chain snarls, the lack of a nationwide charging network and the fact that electric trucks are too costly for some buyers. Volvo recently announced a deal to sell 20 heavy-duty electric trucks to Amazon, and the company plans to complete an electric-truck charging corridor in California by next year. But, Fenton added, “there’s so much that we don’t have control over.”
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Under President Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun work on rules to cut pollution and climate-warming emissions from trucks, buses and delivery vans. The first, which is slated to be finalized by the end of the year, would toughen limits on truck pollution for the first time since 2001 and tighten the current greenhouse gas standards. The second rule would lower greenhouse gas limits starting in model year 2030, speeding the transition to all-electric trucks.
Truck makers and their lobbyists have met repeatedly with EPA officials to push back, urging them to adopt a less strict standard for nitrogen dioxide, which damages the lungs. They have argued that the agency’s proposal requiring them to cut nitrogen dioxide 90 percent by 2031 would be too costly, diverting money from their electrification plans. They have also warned that this standard would increase trucks’ cost, causing buyers to delay making new purchases and leaving older, dirtier, diesel-burning vehicles on the road for years.
The industry appears to be making some headway in Washington. EPA’s proposal is weaker than California’s new emissions rule, which requires manufacturers to start rolling out cleaner trucks beginning in 2024. And climate advocates have complained that it would do little to accelerate electrification because it only requires certain categories of vehicles — mainly school and transit buses, commercial delivery trucks, and short-haul tractors — to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.
And while truck manufacturers say they need to devote their attention and money to electrifying their fleets, they are fighting regulations that would speed that shift.
In 2020, California air quality regulators adopted a landmark regulation mandating that more than half of all trucks sold in the state be zero-emissions by 2035. It was the first rule of its kind in the United States and, to enforce it, state leaders need an EPA waiver allowing them to set stricter tailpipe rules than the federal government.
The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association has challenged the state’s waiver request, arguing that it doesn’t give manufacturers enough lead time. The group represents about 30 truck makers and bus makers, including major players like Daimler Truck, Volvo, Paccar, Navistar and Cummins, a maker of diesel engines.
“It’s hard for me to reconcile the lobbying these companies and their association are doing versus what they’re saying,” said Margo Oge, an electric vehicles expert who directed the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012. “Already, we’re seeing many models of electric heavy-duty trucks and buses. We’ve come a long way for the industry to be complaining at this point.”
Some of the companies opposing the state’s electrification targets have taken money from its zero-emission incentive programs, according to the California Air Resources Board, the state’s air quality regulator. Since 2017, Volvo has accepted about $122 million from the board to develop electric trucks and buses. Daimler had received $100.5 million. Both companies have battery-powered trucks for sale in the United States, with plans to develop hydrogen fuel-cell trucks that can travel longer distances over the next several years.
Congress has also taken action to bolster the market, providing a $40,000 tax credit for electric and hydrogen-powered trucks and buses in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act.
“They’re trying to have it both ways,” Adrian Martinez, an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, said of the truck makers. “They’re fighting the regulations to compel the technology and then they’re also trying to get pats on the back for developing it.”
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Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, said turning California’s dream of zero-emission trucks into a reality is more complicated than the state’s regulators acknowledge.
“Our concerns are with the design” of the new rule, he said, noting that it sets sales requirements for manufacturers for a range of vehicles, from 18-wheeler trucks to school buses and delivery vans. The regulation requires truck makers to sell a larger percentage of zero-emission vehicles each year, eventually reaching a target of selling all-electric or hydrogen fuel-cell trucks by 2045.
“To California’s credit, they’ve invested a lot in infrastructure and incentives,” Mandel said, but electric trucks are still significantly more expensive than diesel ones. The problem, he said, is “there is no obligation that anyone buy them.”
California regulators hope to spur the market by making diesel-powered trucks obsolete. Later this month, the board is expected to consider a proposal to phase out diesel truck sales by 2040. Other states will likely follow.
But the truck makers’ lobbying group has tried to discourage other states from following California’s lead, telling other environmental regulators to hold off.
“Rushing ahead to adopt California’s rules in New Jersey will lead to major unintended negative consequences that will hurt the economy, the environment, and will set back, not advance, New Jersey’s goals,” EMA and other industry groups wrote last year to New Jersey’s commissioner of environmental protection, Shawn LaTourette.
New Jersey did ultimately adopt California’s clean-truck rule, as did Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Washington. Together, those states represent about 20 percent of the country’s medium- and heavy-duty truck market.
But other states have opted against it, at least for now.
In Maine, where the Board of Environmental Protection was weighing whether to adopt California’s truck electrification rule late last year, fleet owners and other opponents raised enough concerns to derail the process. “At this time, we have not scheduled any future rulemaking,” Lynne Cayting, an official with the state’s bureau of air quality, said in an email.
Later this fall, the EPA is expected to decide whether to allow California to enforce its new truck rules. That could spark a messy court battle with truck manufacturers, which could have unintended consequences. California air regulators said that if the industry undermines this policy, they would have to crack down harder to combat air pollution — perhaps with an even more aggressive electrification mandate.
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