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Heavy Trucks Are New Target for Reducing Air Pollution

The economy depends on long-haul trucking but those 18-wheelers produce a large amount of the transit sector’s greenhouse gases. “You can’t just be flapping your gums about ‘zero emissions’ and not have a plan to get there.”

(TNS) — The black dust that caked Margaret Gordon’s venetian blinds was the first bad omen. Her West Oakland neighborhood, crisscrossed by freeways and nestled close to a busy port, was gradually poisoning her lungs, she says.

When Gordon moved to an affordable housing complex on 7th and Willow streets in 1992, she could hear trucks rumbling by throughout the day, shipping goods from the port, crawling along the Interstate 880 underpass and rolling out of the post office parking lot.

Gordon was diagnosed with asthma, as were her two grandchildren, who lived in the same building. Respiratory ailments were so widespread among children in the neighborhood that the nurse at Prescott Elementary School carried a shoe box full of inhalers.

Two decades later, air pollution still looms near ports and freeways. The transportation sector accounts for 41% of greenhouse gas emissions in California, and 10% derives from heavy trucks, which comprise only 4% of all vehicles on the road. The California Air Resources Board is trying to reverse that trend by gradually converting the truck industry to electric power, a process that could take decades.

Next week, the board will weigh new standards for electric truck sales, set for a vote next year. The draft policy would require manufacturers to start selling electric heavy trucks in 2024 with the aim of making 4% of the commercial fleet in the state zero-emission by 2030. Intended to clean up the industry, it has met critics.

Among them is Gordon, whose personal experience with bad air quality propelled her to become a fierce environmental activist. She pointed to holes in the draft policy, which sets rules for manufacturers but provides no funding for charging infrastructure or incentives for truckers to purchase electric vehicles.

“You can’t just be flapping your gums about ‘zero emissions’ and not have a plan to get there,” Gordon said. “There will have to be partnerships on multiple fronts.”

Representatives of the trucking industry share Gordon’s concerns about the lack of charging stations to support the new vehicles. They fear, moreover, that commercial fleet owners won’t buy zero-emission trucks. Environmentalists on the other side say the proposal is too weak to address an urgent public health and climate crisis. They want a higher standard.

With the first public hearing set for Thursday, interest groups are blasting away from all sides. When the Advanced Clean Trucks Regulation takes effect, it will likely set a precedent for other states. California already has aggressive benchmarks for zero-emission passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks: Officials aim to boost the 600,000 on streets and highways today to 1.5 million by 2025.

Commercial trucks present a different set of challenges. Policymakers at the Air Resources Board are proceeding with caution, pressing for an electric future while trying to set targets that truck manufacturers can realistically achieve. They have held three years of workshops, and private meetings with people who would be affected by the rule, to get to this point.

Most advocates agree with the stated objectives to jump-start the electric vehicle market, reduce air pollution and balance the needs of a roaring freight economy. But few of them are satisfied.

“We do agree with many of the concerns posed by the environmentalists, but we have to do what’s reasonable,” said Air Resources Board spokeswoman Karen Caesar. “We have to be realistic about what the manufacturers can produce, how much demand there is going to be and what the fleet turnover is going to look like.”

Last year, then-Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order for California to be carbon-neutral by 2045 — and then go negative. The goal was so bold that some experts wondered how to reach it. Meanwhile, the state’s economy boomed, putting nearly 2 million commercial trucks on the roads and creating a new quandary for environmentally minded politicians.

Activists and public health experts cite the damage that truck pollution has wrought on communities surrounded by ports and freeways. In West Oakland, for instance, rates of asthma hospitalizations and emergency room visits are nearly twice what they are for Alameda County at large.

The effects are even more severe in the San Joaquin Valley, “which is arguably the most polluted air basin in the nation,” wrote Genevieve Gale, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, in comments she submitted to the Air Resources Board.

In south Fresno, a major hub for freight distribution centers, diesel trucks rattle past parks, schools and residential neighborhoods, Gale said. Emissions and fumes saturate the air near Port of Stockton, where many working-class residents can’t afford air filters. And the cost of a typical emergency room visit — about $1,500 — can be devastating for people without insurance, she noted.

Yet the proposed regulations hit resistance from trucking manufacturers, petroleum marketers and gas stations that want to protect their business. Some didn’t want to be burdened with new reporting requirements. Others said the community outreach process had been inadequate. Above all, the manufacturers don’t want to invest in new technology that they won’t be able to sell.

“These are business vehicles,” said Timothy Blubaugh, executive vice president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association. “They’re purchased as a capital investment by someone with a trucking fleet, to improve the bottom line of their operation. If a vehicle is too expensive to purchase, or too expensive to operate, they simply won’t buy it.”

Officials at the Air Resources Board predict that selling the vehicles won’t be a problem. They expect to draft a second set of requirements — one that applies to truck owners and operators, or the companies that hire them — in 2022, so that it coincides with the manufacturer sales requirements that begin in 2024. The cost of an electric tractor trailer will likely go down in that time frame, from $400,000 today to $160,000 in five years, said Tony Brasil, chief of the Air Resources Board’s transportation and clean technology branch.

By comparison, a diesel tractor trailer costs about $125,000, though it’s more expensive to fuel and maintain than a plug-in.

Brasil deflected concerns about charging infrastructure, noting that the state committed $686 million to help utilities build the equipment. “So a truck owner might only have to invest in the charger itself,” Brasil said.

If truck and engine manufacturers recoil at a 4% electric vehicle target, they’re also fighting off people like Jimmy O’Dea, a senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who wants the bar set much higher — at 15%.

O’Dea came face to face with the state’s burgeoning truck sector while jogging with friends across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge bike path on a recent Monday morning. As gauzy sunlight broke through the fog, O’Dea watched rush hour drivers jostle among an assortment of hulking trucks: flatbeds, semis, delivery vehicles, box trucks, big rigs. He could smell their thick, sour fumes on the span’s uphill slopes, where the trucks would accelerate and burn more diesel fuel.

“We’d just get a shot of fumes as each truck went by,” O’Dea said.

He sees the potential for a more robust electric truck market, even if the technology is new and somewhat daunting. Since the workshops began in 2016, United Parcel Service and FedEx have each ordered 1,000 electric delivery trucks, and Amazon has ordered 100,000.

“We’ve been in dialogue about this for a long time, but it wouldn’t pass until 2020, and probably wouldn’t take effect until 2024,” he said. “This just illustrates the timeline we’re up against.”

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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