Why Obama’s New Fuel Standards For Big Trucks Matter

CREDIT: AP/Hans Pennink

President Obama is announcing plans on Tuesday for improved fuel-efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, which comprise four percent of registered vehicles but are responsible for nearly a quarter of fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. In 2011, the transportation sector accounted for around 28 percent of the countries’ greenhouse gases (GHGs) — only the electricity sector produces more.

This is the latest move in Obama’s recent efforts to confront climate change, and is a key component of his Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon emissions. On Friday, Obama called for Congress’s help in the matter, asking for assistance setting up a $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund. Congress has neglected to act on even simple measures to reduced GHGs, and Obama will use his announcement to again urge Congress to repeal $4 billion in subsidies granted to the oil and gas industry each year via taxpayers — which he called for in his State of the Union.

The Obama Administration has previously identified medium- and heavy-duty vehicles — which include school buses, garbage trucks, large pickups, vocational vehicles and tractor-trailers — as a major opportunity to cut transportation oil use, which accounts for 70 percent of oil use in the U.S., reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the economy. In 2010, Obama directed the EPA and the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop joint GHG and fuel-efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, the first ever fuel-efficiency standards for these vehicles.

According to a fact sheet provided by the White House, this first round of standards is projected to save 530 million barrels of oil and reduce GHG emissions by around 270 million metric tons, saving users an estimated $50 billion in lifetime fuel costs.

Obama, who is making the announcement at a Washington-area distribution center for Safeway stores, will also emphasize the importance of partnering with the private sector to facilitate the deployment of energy-efficient vehicles and the necessary supportive infrastructure. Obama previously launched the National Clean Fleets Partnership meant to help large fleet operators, such as Coca-Cola, Staples, AT&T and UPS, incorporate alternative fuels and other fuel-saving measures.

In 2013, AT&T used its 7,500th alternative fuel vehicle (AFV), according to the White House Fact Sheet, and has committed to deploying around 15,000 AFVs by 2018. These vehicles include compressed natural gas, hybrid electric, all-electric, and extended-range electric vehicles.

The Administration is also committed to helping improve the efficiency of class 8 combination trucks, commonly known as 18-wheelers. These vehicles, which haul about 70 percent of freight tonnage — amounting to over 70 percent of the value of all goods shipped in the U.S. — are part of the Administration’s SuperTruck program, which is focused on demonstrating that freight hauling efficiency can be improved by 50 percent in the near future.

The announcement is being made at Safeway because “the company has invested in cleaner, more efficient trucks with improved aerodynamics, better tires and larger-capacity trailers,” according to the Associated Press.

This second phase of fuel efficiency standards will be announced by March 2016 and go into effect for vehicles made after 2018, when the first phase ends. Obama is expected to direct the EPA and the DOT to work with manufacturers, labor groups, states, NGOs and other stakeholders to help determine the best path toward increased fuel efficiency in vehicles made after 2018.

While medium- and heavy-duty vehicles offer great opportunities for fuel efficiency and reduced GHG emissions, they are currently the second-largest source of GHG emissions within the transportation sector, after passenger cars and light trucks. The Administration has also been extremely proactive addressing the same concerns with this class of vehicles, and average new car and light truck fuel efficiency is expected to double by 2025, according to the White House Fact Sheet, reaching an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. This will save consumers $1.7 trillion, roughly $8,200 per vehicle, reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels a day in 2025, and cut GHGs by six billion metric tons over the lifetimes of the vehicles sold.