The first-ever fuel economy and carbon emissions standards for trucks, buses, and other big vehicles announced by the Obama administration Monday may leave environmental groups and proponents of alternative fuels wanting more.
The draft rules will apply to medium- and heavy-duty vehicles built from 2014 to 2018. The goals range from 10 to 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions and fuel consumption, depending on the size and type of the vehicle.
Many alternative fuels, such as natural gas, are not widely available and are thus not included in the standards. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Monday that the standards should spur development of these technologies.
“American scientists can step up to produce new materials that make our vehicles lighter, safer and more fuel efficient,” Jackson said during a conference call with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Manufacturers across the country can produce new components - in turn creating more jobs in new industries, and opening America up to new global markets. And advanced technology manufacturers like battery makers will be encouraged to step up to meet the needs of heavy-duty vehicles.”
Jackson deflected a question about when or whether subsequent rule-making for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, which includes everything from fire trucks to moving vans to semitrailers, will include incentives or requirements for alternative fuels.
“What we find happens as we give one consistent national performance standard is that our truck manufacturers rise to find the next generation of cost-effective technologies,” Jackson said. “So we don’t think we need to necessarily pick a winner in terms of technologies.”
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., has been working with the trucking industry on ways to increase fuel efficiency. He told National Journal after the announcement on Monday that more dramatic technological improvements, such as shifting to alternative fuels, could be expected sooner than some industry observers predict.
“There is no question in my mind that we are going to see the emergence sooner rather than later of significant technological improvements,” Blumenauer said. “Part of that is using natural gas and hybrid-diesel. You are going to see this in the next two to three years, if only because this is an international issue. Some of our international competitors are going to be moving more aggressively than we are.”
But the administration’s standards left proponents of alternative fuels wanting more. “We fully expect to comment in favor of incentives for natural gas trucks and buses in this rule-making go-round,” said Jeff Clark, general counsel and director of regulatory affairs at Natural Gas Vehicles for America. “No need to wait for the next go-round to do that.” Clark noted that the administration’s fuel economy and carbon emissions standards for passenger cars included incentives for natural gas and other alternative power, including batteries, and numerous manufacturers produce natural gas-powered vehicles. But the industry faces a steep climb, since the refueling infrastructure is lacking in much of the country, and natural gas-powered vehicles make up less than 1 percent of the nation’s vehicles, including trucks.
Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, pointed out that the overwhelming majority of big trucks on U.S. roads today run on diesel and the agencies are calling for tweaks to diesel engines.
“We have no feeling of any threat from alternative fuels as a result of this proposal,” Schaeffer said.
Environmental groups are concerned that the goals of the administration are not overly ambitious. Some groups are urging the agencies to reach for a higher goal than what was announced Monday. A report published in September by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other groups said the administration could further reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions by including trailers in their fuel efficiency calculations. But Jackson said Monday that including trailers in the standards was not feasible at this time.
“EPA and [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] have very limited experience related to regulating trailers,” Jackson said. “Likewise, the trailer manufacturing industry has probably at most limited experience with complying with regulation.”
But she confirmed predictions by many industry experts that the administration could consider trailers as part of the standards down the road. “We are soliciting comments on controlling greenhouse gas emissions and reducing fuel consumption from trailers, and that is certainly something we would consider in a future rule-making.”
Blumenauer agreed with the administration that trailers should wait until another round. “I think we are better off at this point moving forward with this piece,” he said. “I think sooner rather than later we will be seeing those changes.”