A clean break?

Sustainability – the catch-all term for efforts to address fuel and water consumption, climate change, pollution and so on – is hot these days. The mania seems a bit like a bubble destined to burst, just like tulip bulbs in the 1660s, Internet stocks in 2000 and subprime mortgage lending today.

But the green movement is fundamentally different from those greed-driven schemes. Even if sustainability is not an immediate global crisis, it is a real worry that promises to grow more challenging as populations rise and nations develop industrially. And it’s already a political and economic force to be reckoned with.

The political dynamic is no longer tree huggers versus big business. It’s now tree huggers with big business – the latter waving the banner of energy independence and environmental responsibility to win tax breaks, grants, regulatory concessions and government contracts.

Environmental and energy legislation also is a battleground for competition among companies and industries. The railroad industry, for example, got language inserted into a House energy bill this summer that would require a study of how to encourage shippers to move freight to rail from “less fuel-efficient trucks.” In the Senate energy bill, parties promoting vegetable-based biodiesel tried unsuccessfully to kill a renewable fuels tax break for developers of biodiesel based on byproduct animal fat.

Sustainability appears in sales and marketing efforts frequently. Online travel agencies Expedia and Travelocity, for example, now let airline passengers offset the “carbon footprint” of their trips by donating funds to build wind farms, capture methane from cows or plant trees. Or consider the owner of an olive grove in southern England – the mere existence of which he attributes to global warming – who is touting to domestic consumers his crop’s low “food miles” compared to olives that are trucked and shipped in from Mediterranean regions.

The sustainability craze has helped accelerate fuel-saving technologies, although market demand driven by high fuel costs is a far more significant factor. Otherwise, environmentalism generally has been a problem, not a solution, for fleet owners. The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered two expensive emissions changes this decade, and another is coming in just a couple of years. Strict anti-idling and alternative fuels regulations are popping up everywhere. And we won’t even discuss California.

The trucking industry really faces two options. It can resist policies driven by growing sustainability worries. Or it can try to redirect these concerns to minimize the economic impact and even help achieve other goals. A good example of the latter approach is the sustainability task force that American Trucking Associations Chairman Ray Kuntz appointed in June to develop alternatives to proposals for carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems for emissions. Even though trucks contribute a relatively small amount of greenhouse gases – an estimated 5 percent of total emissions compared to 29 percent just for coal plants – the trucking industry is a politically easy target. The task force’s recommendations, now under review by ATA staff and policy committees, include:

  • A national speed limit of 65 mph for all vehicles;
  • A federal solution to reduce idling through infrastructure improvements, incentives, technology and harmonization of rules;
  • Endorsement of participation in EPA’s SmartWay Transport Partnership by carriers and shippers;
  • A fuel tax increase dedicated to congestion relief; and
  • Larger combination vehicles where practical to make trucks more productive.

Each of these recommendations happens to be a position that ATA already supports – mostly for reasons other than sound environmental stewardship. A satisfactory outcome won’t be so easy, of course. Success demands some heavy-duty redirection and a good measure of resisting.