Congress adopts future truck fuel economy standards

Congress is poised for the first time to mandate fuel economy standards on commercial medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks, although the first trucks affected could be almost a decade away. The Senate on Thursday night, Dec. 13, passed 86 to 8 compromise legislation (H.R. 6) aimed at reducing energy use overall and promoting the use of renewable energy. H.R. 6 as passed by the Senate is similar to a version approved recently in the House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday night that the House would pass the Senate version next week, clearing it for President Bush, who is expected to sign it.

While the final bill mandates specific fuel economy benchmarks for automobiles and light trucks, it orders the Department of Transportation to establish fuel economy standards for those vehicles as well as work trucks following a National Academy of Sciences study. NAS will examine the prospects for technologies that could improve the fuel economy of medium- and heavy duty trucks. It also will also look at the costs of those technologies as well as the costs and impacts of other factors on operation of trucks, such as congestion.

Under the legislation, any DOT fuel economy standards for work trucks and commercial medium- and heavy-duty on-highway trucks must give truck makers four full model years of regulatory lead time and provide three full model years of regulatory stability for a given fuel economy standard. Based on the timeframes for study, rulemaking and lead time allowed under H.R. 6, fuel economy standards for commercial trucks are unlikely before the middle of the next decade.

H.R. 6 also authorizes money for a number of projects and initiatives aimed at reducing energy consumption or promoting renewable fuels. For example, DOT is to establish a program to award capital grants to Class II and Class III railroads for projects that rehabilitate or improve railroad track, encourage greater use of railroad transportation for freight shipments or “reduce the use of less fuel-efficient modes of transportation in the transportation of such shipments.” Railroads also could get grants to demonstrate innovative technologies and advanced research and development that increase fuel economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower the costs of operation.

Another section establishes a grant program to fund the development of “electric transportation technology” projects, which could include truckstop electrification, electric truck refrigeration units and battery-powered auxiliary power units for trucks, as well as similar technologies for other transportation modes.

The energy bill includes several provisions related to biodiesel. For example, the American Society for Testing and Materials is given a year to adopt a standard for diesel fuel containing 20 percent biodiesel, usually called B20. If not, the Environmental Protection Agency must conduct a rulemaking to set a uniform per-gallon fuel standard for B20 and designate an identification number so that vehicle manufacturers are able to design engines to use fuel meeting that standard. The legislation also requires a study of the effects of biodiesel at varying concentrations – B5 through B100 – on the performance and durability of engines and engine systems.

H.R. 6 creates a number of new regulatory and oversight entities, including an Office of Climate Change and Environment within DOT. The office is to plan, coordinate and implement research, strategies and actions to reduce transportation-related energy use and mitigate the effects of climate change, including the effects of climate change on the transportation system itself.

Another study would evaluate the prospects for and feasibility of advanced insulation for use in commercial trucks and trailers as well as commercial refrigerators and freezers.