California Keeps on Truckin'

Alice Kaswan

July 1, 2020

When California adopted its first-in-the-nation regulations requiring truck electrification on June 25, the state took a step (or drove a mile) toward reducing pollution in the nation's most vulnerable communities. The new regulation exemplifies a key feature of California's approach: its integration of climate goals, clean air goals, and, at least in this case, environmental justice goals.

According to the press release from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), trucks in California contribute 80 percent of the state's diesel pollution and 70 percent of its smog-causing pollution while constituting less than 7 percent of registered vehicles. The rule's environmental assessment explains that particulate matter from diesel engines is responsible "for approximately 60 percent of the current estimated cancer risk for background ambient air." These risks are highest near freight hubs, including "ports, rail yards and distribution centers." And these areas, in turn, are often in low-income communities of color. Trucks play no small part in the state's pattern of racial injustice, a pattern repeated throughout the country, as EPA's assessment of exposure disparities near ports reveals.

Building on California's existing zero-emission requirements for passenger vehicles and lighter pick-ups like the Ford F-150, the rule requires truck manufacturers to phase in zero-emission vehicle sales beginning in 2024. For light-duty trucks (classes 2b-3), including some minivans, cargo vans, and pick-up trucks, manufacturers' sales of zero-emission vehicles must reach 5 percent by 2024, increasing to 55 percent by 2035. The requirements are more demanding for mid- and some heavy-duty vehicles (classes 4-8), the zero-emissions sales of which must reach 9 percent by 2024 and increase to 75 percent by 2035. Heavy-duty tractor trucks, consisting of a cab that hauls a detached cargo load, face less demanding requirements, however, beginning at 5 percent in 2024 and increasing to 40 percent by 2031 – an earlier deadline but a less stringent requirement.

In developing climate policies, states have choices. California's decision to control truck emissions reflects its commitment to offering critical public health and environmental justice benefits alongside climate benefits. Although greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide do not have significant localized effects, they are almost invariably accompanied by pollutants that do. Rather than address its pollution challenges in distinct silos, California has taken a more comprehensive approach that provides far-reaching benefits. Home to some of the worst localized air pollution in the United States, most notably in Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley, these benefits are significant.

Also notable in California's emphasis on truck emissions is the policy's racial justice benefits. Many of the areas with the highest truck traffic, and the highest toxic diesel emissions, are located in low-income Black and Latinx communities. West Oakland, a historically Black Oakland neighborhood, has experienced high levels of diesel pollution from the Port of Oakland, as trucks move goods from ships to rail lines and warehouses. New warehouse districts in southern California have led, in one community, to more than 1,000 diesel trucks per hour on the roads, according to counts made by the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. Recent efforts to reduce diesel pollution near the ports have substantially reduced prior levels, and the Advanced Clean Truck rule takes the state to the next level by expanding the range of communities that will benefit from reduced diesel emissions.

Truck manufacturers lobbied hard against the measure, stating that they do not have the technology to meet these goals by the deadlines and that the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed technology testing and development. In contrast, CARB asserts that many zero-emission vans and trucks are already commercially available and are suitable for the majority of truck travel, which is less than 100 miles per day. In terms of the cost to truckers and fleet operators, the agency acknowledges that zero-emission trucks currently cost more upfront. However, over time, CARB suggests that that cost will be offset by lower operating costs, so that the total cost of ownership will be comparable to conventional trucks. An existing state voucher program also helps small owners replace diesel trucks.

Other states may well follow suit. Although California is the only state permitted to adopt its own vehicle emission rules, all states are free to choose between the less stringent federal requirements and more stringent California requirements. (The Clean Air Act allows only California to adopt alternative emission standards so that auto manufacturers have to worry about only two emissions standards, rather than 50.) Several states, including Nevada, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, are already signaling their support for California's approach.

Before California and the states seeking to follow its lead can proceed, they will have to obtain approval from the federal EPA, which takes the form of waiving otherwise applicable preemption. At first glance, that hurdle may appear formidable, since EPA recently withdrew its waiver for California's zero-emission vehicle program for automobiles, arguing that only programs designed to achieve local air quality benefits, not the more attenuated benefits of greenhouse gas reductions, meet the waiver criteria. EPA also stated that greenhouse gas controls are preempted by parallel fuel economy legislation. However, because California did not rest its clean truck rule solely on greenhouse gas objectives and clearly articulated the importance of the regulation to achieving localized air quality challenges, the Trump administration may be hard-pressed to deny the waiver.

If Congress follows the recommendations of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, issued June 30, the entire nation could benefit from reducing trucks' diesel pollution. Acknowledging California's new truck standards, the Select Committee recommended an ambitious national sales requirement for medium and heavy-duty trucks of 30 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. The committee also recommended a suite of additional measures to further truck electrification, including greenhouse gas tailpipe emission standards, vouchers to help small fleet owners replace diesel trucks and to support production, and support for charging infrastructure for commercial vehicles. Recognizing the impact of diesel pollution on "environmental justice communities," the Select Committee also recommended that Congress prioritize funding to benefit environmental justice communities and those that experience disproportionate levels of air pollution.

In our collective reckoning with systemic racism and collective recognition of longstanding patterns of privilege and suffering, something as seemingly mundane as a truck rule can be seen as a beacon of hope. California's Advanced Clean Truck rule and the Select Committee's attention to truck pollution demonstrate our capacity to provide an integrated response to a trifecta of crises – climate, public health, and racial justice.

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