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EPA enacts tougher pollution rule for trucks, vans and buses

The new policy is designed to cut deadly air pollution. It is less stringent than California’s rules, disappointing some advocates.

Smoke pours from the exhaust pipes on a truck in November 2019 in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Manufacturers will have to reduce harmful tailpipe pollution from new trucks, delivery vans and buses under a long-awaited regulation the Biden administration finalized Tuesday — a rule that could protect public health in poor communities but does not go as far as many advocates hoped.

The regulation marks the first time the federal government has tried to crack down on emissions from these diesel-powered vehicles in over two decades, and it is aimed at improving the lives and health of Americans who live alongside highways, ports and sprawling distribution centers. Exposed to heavy diesel exhaust, these predominantly poor, Black and Latino communities suffer higher rates of asthma, heart disease and early death.

“This is a very aggressive action to protect the health of 72 million Americans and people living in these truck freight routes,” Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Regan said the EPA rule is the first part of a three-step plan to cut pollution and planet-warming emissions from trucks and buses. In spring, the administration plans to release a separate set of greenhouse gas rules for heavy-duty vehicles.

The new tailpipe rule — which will take effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register and will apply to model year 2027 and beyond — was the focus of heavy lobbying by vehicle makers, and it reflects the Biden administration’s struggle to crack down on pollution without inviting a legal backlash.

Public health advocates praised the new regulation, saying it was likely to result in real health benefits. But the policy was met with disappointment by some environmental groups and liberals, who had pushed the EPA to be far tougher. It is not as stringent as California’s pollution regulations, which activists had held up as a model for federal policy.

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The EPA said the new rule would require truck makers to reduce vehicles’ emissions of lung-damaging nitrogen dioxide 80 percent below the current standard. California’s rule calls for a 90 percent cut.

The new policy is a “missed opportunity,” Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “The final standards announced by EPA do not reflect the full potential of the solutions available to tackle smog-forming and particulate pollution from trucks, including electrification.”

Environmental justice advocates said they had hoped for a rule that would push fleet owners to replace their diesel-burning trucks and buses with zero-emission alternatives.

The new pollution policy is a “short-term solution,” said José Miguel Acosta Córdova, senior transportation policy analyst for the Chicago-based Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. Little Village, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the city’s southwest, sits near major highways and railroads and has some of the dirtiest air in Chicago.

“There’s no amount of pollution that’s good — any exposure is bad — even if they’re cleaner trucks than they previously were,” Córdova said.

In a setback for California’s ability to set pollution standards that are tougher than the federal limits, the EPA also announced that it would postpone making a decision until early next year about whether to grant the state’s request for the waivers it needs to enforce its own policies. The delay leaves the state’s truck pollution rules in limbo and affects the other states that have already signed on to follow California’s regulations.

Tuesday’s finalized rule differs from one the EPA proposed earlier this year, and in writing it, the agency appears to have leaned into compromise.

Its proposal in March detailed two possible paths — one closer to California’s rule and a weaker alternative favored by truck makers. In an interview, Regan said the final regulation has pieces of both “to ensure the final standards are as strong as possible, take effect as soon as possible and will last as long as possible.”

As a result, the agency estimates the new rule will cut nitrogen dioxide from heavy-duty trucks by 48 percent by 2045. The original proposal would have reduced emissions by 60 percent.

“The EPA landed in the right place,” said Margo Oge, a former senior official at the agency. Oge said critics of the policy should remember that the EPA’s work is not done. The new rules the agency is working on to cut planet-warming emissions from heavy-duty trucks are expected to accelerate purchases of zero-emission trucks, reducing diesel pollution even more.

“The agency now has to roll up its sleeve and deliver something significant and big, and if they don’t, it’s going to be a big disappointment,” Oge said.

EPA officials said the new pollution limits would prevent up to 2,900 premature deaths, 6,700 hospital admissions and emergency department visits, and 18,000 cases of childhood asthma by 2045.

The agency estimated that the new rule would deliver significant economic benefits, outweighing its costs by about $29 billion each year.

An analysis by the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation found that while tighter truck pollution standards would help people across the nation, Midwestern and Southern states stand to benefit the most, relative to their size, because of their busy highways and large concentrations of people living nearby.

Exactly what the new rule will mean for neighborhoods exposed to heavy diesel exhaust is uncertain. Experts said that whether the regulation makes deep cuts to emissions depends in large part on whether it closes some of the loopholes that have weakened previous federal rules.

The new rule does include an important change: For the first time, it regulates the pollution emitted from diesel-burning engines at low speeds, while idling, and in stop-and-go traffic. These emissions, which are most likely to affect people living in neighborhoods choked with truck traffic, were previously excluded.

But truck makers and their lobbyists have pushed the EPA to grant them other allowances that would make it easier for them to meet the new standards on paper, even if they exceed them in the real world.

The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, an industry group, warned the Biden administration against setting the bar too high, arguing that compliance would increase trucks’ cost, causing buyers to delay making new purchases and leaving older, dirtier, diesel-burning vehicles on the road for years.

In a statement Tuesday, EMA President Jed Mandel said the new rule was “very stringent and will be challenging to implement.”

“Ultimately, the success or failure of this rule hinges on the willingness and ability of trucking fleets to invest in purchasing the new technology to replace their older, higher-emitting vehicles,” he added.

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The United Auto Workers had also expressed concerns. The union urged the administration to adopt a less strict standard for nitrogen dioxide out of concern that higher truck prices would cost its members jobs.

If the EPA grants California’s waiver requests next year, giving the state the ability to enforce its own limits on truck pollution, truck manufacturers are expected to sue. Industry representatives have said they would prefer to follow one national standard, and they have tried to discourage other states from adopting California’s tougher rules.

For their part, California officials did not directly criticize the EPA for delaying action but said in a statement, “We eagerly look forward to formal EPA approval of our existing standards that reduce pollution in California and other states.”

Diesel-burning trucks and buses are major polluters. Although their emissions have declined over the decades as technology has improved, of all the vehicles on the nation’s roadways, they are still the single biggest contributor to unhealthy air. The nitrogen dioxide they release reacts with chemicals in the atmosphere to create other pollutants, such as ozone and fine particles, that harm human health.

This year, an American Lung Association report estimated that switching to zero-emission trucks would prevent 66,800 premature deaths over the next 30 years.