Climate

Big Trucks Emit Huge Amounts Of Carbon Every Year. The EPA Is About To Do Something About It.

CREDIT: shutterstock

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose new standards for heavy-duty trucks this week, regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions from tractor trailers and other big trucks.

It’s not yet known exactly what cuts the proposed regulations will call for, but according to the New York Times, the rule will likely require heavy trucks — like tractor trailers, buses, and garbage trucks — to increase their fuel economy by up to 40 percent compared to 2010 levels by 2027. Right now, the Times reports, a tractor trailer averages just five to six miles per gallon of diesel fuel. This rule could raise that to as much as nine mpg.

These trucks consume a lot of fuel. According to a fact sheet from several different environmental groups, the truck fleet in the U.S. consumed about 2.7 million barrels of fuel each day in 2013, and emitted a total of 530 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s about 12.5 percent of the U.S.’s total 6,673 million metric tons of emissions in 2013.

“Heavy trucks are energy hogs,” Luke Tonachel, senior vehicles analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Energy and Transportation program, told ThinkProgress. They make up just around 7 percent of the vehicles on the road in the U.S., but they consume about 25 percent of all fuel. And that fuel consumption differs depending on what kind of goods the trucks are shipping, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):

Fuel used to ship products via truck in the U.S.

Fuel used to ship products via truck in the U.S.

CREDIT: Union of Concerned Scientists

The proposal — if it is what the New York Times reports it to be — would fall short of the hopes of multiple environmental groups, which have called for a 40 percent drop in fuel consumption compared to 2010 levels by 2025. A March report from UCS argued that “the average new truck” could reduce its fuel use by 40 percent by using technologies that are cheap and already available. More efficient trucks will also lead to fuel savings for truck owners, the report notes: owners of tractor trailers could save $30,000 per truck each year, which would allow the companies to quickly earn back the $32,000 per truck they’re estimated to need to spend to update their trucks to meet a 40 percent drop in fuel consumption. If these owners passed on half of their fuel savings to customers, each U.S. household could save $135 each year, according to the report.

That 40 percent drop in fuel consumption, however, is different than the 40 percent increase in fuel economy that the New York Times reports will be coming with the agency’s proposal. Jason Mathers, senior manager of supply chain logistics at the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress that if the rule focused on fuel consumption, it would be able to drive up fuel economy more from heavy trucks.

“The 40 percent reduction of fuel consumption leads to more oil savings, more greenhouse gas savings, and more cost savings than a 40 percent increase in fuel economy,” he said.

EDF and other environmental groups have also called for a steeper regulation on tractor trailers, which comprise most of the country’s heavy- and medium-truck use. If the administration proposed rules to cut tractor trailer fuel consumption by 46 percent, it could increase tractor trailer fuel efficiency to 10.7 miles per gallon — rather than the nine mpg that’s estimated to result if the EPA proposes a 40 percent increase in fuel economy by 2027.

“The targets we’re talking about would reduce fuel consumption from new tractor trailer trucks from about 20,000 gallons a year to about 12,000 gallons a year,” Mathers said.

Potential fuel savings in heavy-duty trucks.

Potential fuel savings in heavy-duty trucks.

CREDIT: ACEEE, EDF, UCS, Sierra Club, NRDC

Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst in the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and author of the March 2015 report on truck fuel consumption, told ThinkProgress that already, some truck companies had increased their fuel economy above the six mpg average. In some cases they’ve done this by using technology that’s already on the market, like aerodynamic trailers and more efficient engines and tires.

“We’re starting to see some small fleets who’s top driver gets 10 or 11 mpg,” he said. “Which is really impressive but they’ve done that by in some cases building the technology themselves.”

These fleets and trucking companies understand the potential for cost savings with more efficient tractor trailers, he said, and he expects many of them to support the administration’s new proposals on truck emissions. Mathers agrees — these proposals, he said, will spur technological innovation that can allow truck companies to achieve greater efficiency than they can right now, so for the most part, he expects truck companies and companies that own major fleets to support them.

Already, some companies — like Pepsi, which owns one of the country’s largest private fleets of trucks — have signed on to a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in support of further regulations on heavy trucks.

“Strong fuel efficiency standards are good for American manufacturing because they incentivize innovation, making U.S. businesses more competitive globally,” the letter, which was sent last week, reads. “We urge EPA and DOT to propose strong phase two standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks in 2015.”

Some trucking companies have already voiced their concern about new regulations, however — a “couple of bad apples” that have emerged as vocal opponents, Cooke said. Tony Greszler, vice president for government relations for Volvo Group North America, told the New York Times that Volvo had “concerns with how this will play out.” And Cooke said Daimler, too, has been wary about the proposals, though the company didn’t respond by press time to a call from ThinkProgress.

The regulations on heavy-duty trucks are coming about three years after the Obama administration finalized rules for cars and light trucks, standards that seek to increase the fuel economy of passenger vehicles to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Compared to some of the Obama administration’s other climate-fighting proposals, the heavy trucks standards might not seem like they’ll make much of a difference, Cooke said, but they’re key to meeting the administration’s climate goals.

“In terms of gross numbers, [truck standards] are not as large as light duty vehicles, or the clean power plant rule,” Cooke said of the expected emissions reductions. But use of heavy trucks for shipping is expected to grow over the next 20 years, so emissions from that sector are expected to grow too.

“If there’s a weak proposal on the table for trucks, it’s going to eat into any of savings [the administration] had to work hard for on light duty or power plants,” Cooke said. “Overall, heavy duty vehicles might be small slice of pie, but it’s going to be slice that continues to grow if we don’t do anything about it.”