A wrong way to SmartWay

Several years ago, the transportation industry and the Environmental Protection Agency hit upon a great idea: The SmartWay Transport Partnership. This program has spotlighted technologies to save fuel and recognized fleets that have acted to improve fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also helps smaller operators find financing for fuel-saving devices and is developing criteria for testing the fuel efficiency of vehicles and technologies.

High fuel prices eventually will make most of the technologies SmartWay promotes virtually universal for on-highway fleets. Even so, SmartWay might develop into something that isn’t strictly voluntary. The federal government might offer tax breaks to carriers that operate SmartWay-certified equipment or to shippers that hire them. Perhaps carriers will need SmartWay-certified trucks to win government contracts. But these are still market-based mechanisms.

Now one governmental agency plans to require that carriers abide by SmartWay certification standards. Guess which one. Time’s up. Yes, of course, it’s the California Air Resources Board.

As part of its response to a 2006 state law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, CARB has drafted regulations that would mandate SmartWay specs for aerodynamics and the rolling resistance of tires. The proposed regulation would apply to long-haul heavy-duty tractors and 53-foot box-type trailers operating in California, regardless of the state of registration. New tractors and trailers would have to meet the standards beginning with model year 2011. Older tractors and trailers would have to be retrofit by 2014 under a phase-in schedule.

Give CARB credit for at least basing its proposed mandate on a national standard rather than one it invented. And strictly from the standpoint of fuel costs, carriers would benefit from more fuel-efficient equipment. But CARB’s draft plan threatens the residual value of certain tractors and trailers, and it would impose still more operational headaches and paperwork burdens on fleet owners.

CARB doesn’t see it this way, of course. Although carriers and their drivers will be subject to enforcement on the roadside and at loading docks, the agency says it will focus compliance on California-based shippers and receivers rather than the trucking industry directly. According to a presentation CARB has been giving at public workshops, this approach is “more equitable for [the] trucking industry and leaves choice to them.”

The idea that any long-haul carrier currently operating in California simply can choose not to do so is ridiculous. California makes up 12 percent of the nation’s population. It’s a huge source of the nation’s produce, and it is home to the nation’s two busiest ports. Even carriers that never operate in California could see falling market values for equipment that can’t be operated there.

CARB also argues that focusing compliance on shippers and receivers makes it more likely that the initial costs would be passed to California consumers rather than truck owners. The agency apparently believes that holding shippers and receivers accountable for compliance will force them to compensate motor carriers for retrofits. That presumption is dubious at best.

It’s clear what CARB is trying to do. State law requires the agency to deliver a major cut in greenhouse gas emissions. CARB understandably wants credit for emissions reductions resulting from spec’ing decisions that fleet owners increasingly are making anyway due to soaring fuel prices. The agency can take credit by regulating those spec’ing decisions, but there should be a less burdensome way to achieve the goal.