Doomsday emissions regulations

Cannon Mug Headshot

If you've never watched a legislative "debate" – and even calling it a debate is pretty generous – it's one of the most inefficient methods of discussion I think I've ever seen. 

Each party is granted a pre-determined amount of time, 30 minutes in the case of the May 23 debate to repeal EPA's Heavy Trucks Rule, and each side attempts to precisely divide that time among as many participants that are willing to get up and speak, generally in increments of 1 or 2 minutes. Each say the same thing, mostly in the same way. There may be some variance in words they choose to emphasize, but the message is the same: Emissions are bad. Emissions are bad. Emissions are bad

A few lawmakers did stand up to acknowledge the considerable work trucking has done in cleaning up its emissions over the last 30-some-odd years, generally conceding that 60 trucks today emit pollutant levels comparable to just one truck in the 1990s. 

California Democrat Tony Cárdenas, who said three of California's largest trucking routes cut through his district (the San Fernando Valley), said he grew up in Los Angeles "where we had first-stage smog alerts. Today, my children don't know what they are."

In its latest annual State of the Air report, the American Lung Association ranked Los Angeles the smoggiest metropolitan area in the country – a distinction it's had for 23 of the last 24 years, or every year that the association has compiled the report except one.  

According to the internet, Rep. Cárdenas is 60 years old. Depending on how you define "growing up," we're talking about the early-1960s to early-80s. The Clean Air Act, the first federal legislation regarding air pollution control, passed the year Rep. Cárdenas was born.

Rep. Cárdenas' children would be roughly my age, so they came up during a time of increased environmental emphasis, and that includes cleaner diesels.

"But today, my grandchildren are being raised in Los Angeles. If we move the clock back (by rolling back EPA emission regulations), my grandchildren, unfortunately, will be able to speak of these smog alerts just like I, unfortunately, had to be subjected to as a child."

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers

I struggled with this portion of testimony because it insinuates that diesel trucks would somehow revert back to the emissions levels of the back half of last century. There are more trucks in California in 2023 than there were in 1963, but Rep. Cárdenas' himself says the air is cleaner in spite of it. 

Trucking is far from the only polluter in Rep. Cárdenas' part of the world. The Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is one of the 10 busiest in the world. The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach are the two largest ports in the country and feature a heavy presence of a couple other major polluters: cargo ships and trains. Those industries are under emission pressure as well, but not under the gun to the degree that trucking is. 

I understand how this works: you need emotion to whip up support for your cause, and in this case the cause was voting against S.J.Res.11. I can't fault Rep. Cárdenas for fighting for the air quality for the people in his district. But California is home to more than 135,000 different trucking companies, and I'm sure none of them are anti-clean air. Each of those fleets support the people living in Rep. Cárdenas' district in some manner; by delivering food or goods, with jobs, and certainly with taxes. Yet, they're villainized for playing by the rules. 

Much of the good work that has been done in cleaning up diesel emissions was done in consultation with the industry, and that's been noted numerous times by American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chis Spear, Truckload Carriers Association Chairman Dave Williams and countless others. Despite a collaborative approach that has consistently yielded the intended results, this administration went into emissions assault mode on an industry that to-date had been a well-intended and willing partner. 

I emailed Rep. Cárdenas' office May 25 because that's how much this bothers me. It's been 11 days and still no reply. 

There’s no indication that trucking fleets would be willing to buy (or could even get) trucks that pollute on the level of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Even if the rollback stands (and there's no way that it will), these fleets would still have to purchase trucks compliant to the current standard, and those trucks are 98% cleaner than pre-emission trucks. So, how does Rep. Cárdenas reconcile that this rollback would lead back to "first-stage smog alerts," specifically as it relates to the fault of trucking companies?

I'm on Team Clean Air. I have kids, and I guess maybe one day I'll have grandkids. And if I don't, I want clean air for your grandkids. But I'm also practical in my approach.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates its regulations might add up to $8,000 to the cost of a truck. The American Truck Dealers Association says it might be $42,000. I don't know about you, but the group that sells these things everyday might be closer to right. 

We can't (or shouldn't) mandate clean air solutions that barely exist for an industry this fragmented, and then pretend these solutions are 1) affordable and 2) one-size-fits-all. But that's what we're doing. 

Our grandkids don't want to pay $11 for a loaf of bread, or grow their own food because there's not enough trucks to get fresh fruits and vegetables coast-to-coast in a timely manner before they spoil. Maybe that sounds too doomsday to be a reality, but If Rep. Cárdenas can go with his worst case apocalyptic scenario, so can I. 

There's a collaborative and practical way we can all get to where we want to go but there is, for some reason, a resistance to taking it right now. 

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected].