EPA’s Proposal Misses the Mark (Again)

This blog explores EPA’s newly proposed regulations for heavy-duty vehicles and targeted updates to the agency’s previously finalized tailpipe emissions regulations.

A close-up view of emissions from the exhaust pipe on a truck.


Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently taking comments on its proposal for new tailpipe emission standards for heavy-duty trucks. In our recent testimony to the agency, we made our position clear: 

EPA’s preferred option in its proposal is incredibly weak, and unless significantly strengthened, would fail to deliver the climate and public health outcomes the agency seeks.

Luckily, there is still more time to influence EPA’s proposed rule and NRDC will work with the Moving Forward Network and other stakeholders to push the agency to finalize a rule for heavy-duty vehicles by the end of the year that achieves the following:

  • It is significantly stronger than the strongest alternative provided for comment in the agency’s proposal and puts the nation on a path to zero-emissions from all new-heavy duty vehicles by 2035.
  • Provides increased certainty that the agency’s projections for zero-emission and electric vehicles will be met by requiring that combustion engine vehicles get cleaner.
  • Addresses the cumulative impacts of heavy-duty vehicle pollution on vulnerable communities, including by incorporating the recommendations on this from the agency’s Science Advisory Board.

It is imperative that the agency significantly strengthen its proposal and finalize a rule that is stronger than the strongest alternative offered for comment.

The Proposal

The proposed standards aim to reduce carbon emissions from these vehicles through building upon a previous iteration of the agency’s previous round of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards established in 2016. EPA says that its proposed rule will deliver public health benefits as a result of the rule’s projected impact on replacing polluting gas-powered trucks through advancing zero-emission vehicle technologies, like electric vehicles.

Unfortunately, EPA’s proposal is plagued by a number of shortcomings. To start, the agency’s proposal fails to consider the environmental justice impacts that result from not structuring the rule so that only the cleanest vehicles are incentivized. EPA also fails to provide enough certainty that manufacturers will choose a compliance pathway that actually results in the zero emission vehicle levels (and associated climate and public health benefits) they project. In particular, the weak stringency levels in the agency’s proposal and the agency’s failure to assume there will be improvements made to internal combustion engine efficiency leaves room for scenarios where industry can comply with fewer zero emission vehicles than the proposal projects.

Additionally, the proposal fails to appropriately account for the fact that more than 20 percent of U.S. medium and heavy-duty vehicle sales are in states that have already adopted the Advanced Clean Trucks rule. A number of other states are expected to follow suit.  

The agency’s proposal also fails to appropriately account for the historic investments from the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law and their projected impacts on increasing the share of zero emission and battery electric trucks in the heavy-duty vehicles market. Instead, EPA relies on overly conservative assumptions that don’t even account for industry’s publicly announced plans to transition to zero emissions trucks. We need EPA’s rule to at the very least match industry momentum, rather than work to undermine publicly planned actions.

The Alternatives

The agency’s proposal offers additional stringency scenarios for comment, three of which are stronger than the agency’s preferred approach, and one of which is less stringent. The weakest alternative should be quickly forgotten. 

The strongest of the alternative proposals reflects manufacturer commitments to transition 50 to 60 percent of their fleets to zero emissions by the end of the decade. The other alternatives include one midpoint proposal that matches the Advanced Clean Trucks standard, and another midpoint proposal between that and EPA’s much weaker, preferred approach.

Additional Considerations for the Agency

While it is ultimately EPA’s main responsibility to set standards that are feasible and deliver clean air and environmental protections, we recognize that there are other considerations that ultimately impact the level of stringency that the agency is comfortable finalizing. This section explores some of these considerations.

Supply Chain Considerations 

The market is moving quickly toward more and more zero-emission trucks and manufacturers have already made commitments to transition their fleets in the next decade. For example, there were only 20 zero-emission truck models available in 2019, but that number grew to 544 available models three years later. Additionally, state-level vehicle emissions policies, like the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, work complimentary to federal-level efforts and help increase model availability and affordability. 

While it is true that there are some near-term supply chain issues, those near-term constraints must be viewed in context. First, supply chain constraints can affect vehicles of all types, not just electric vehicles. The global chip shortage has impacted zero-emission vehicles and gas-powered vehicles alike, and recent increases in global oil prices have also uniquely impacted those polluting vehicles. There is reason to believe that today’s zero-emission vehicle supply chain constraints – including critical mineral concerns – will be resolved in time to comply with these future standards.

Economic Considerations 

The savings on fuel and maintenance costs significantly outweigh any incremental upfront costs associated with adopting zero-emission truck technology, and the economics will only continue to improve due to advances in battery technology and increased zero-emission vehicle production. In fact, many electric trucks and buses will be cheaper than gas-powered vehicles this year thanks to the investments from the Inflation Reduction Act. And a growing set of state, federal, and utility incentives from the bipartisan infrastructure bill and other federal and state programs will further reduce zero emission vehicle costs.

Grid and Infrastructure Considerations

It will be nearly a decade from now before these vehicle standards fully kick in, but if you are concerned about whether our nation’s electricity grid can handle all of the electric vehicles that will be coming over the years, it certainly can. The grid is built for the most demanding hour of the year and every other hour there is excess capacity. 

Powering vehicles from the grid will also deliver growing public-health and environmental benefits since battery electric vehicles are much cleaner than gas-powered vehicles, from cradle to grave, and will only getting cleaner as the grid becomes increasingly powered by clean renewable energy sources.

Additionally, numerous state and federal investments will help accelerate the build-out of charging infrastructure for heavy battery electric trucks that travel long distances and require charging along their routes. For example, the bipartisan infrastructure law specifically established the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program to provide funding for a strategically built, interconnected, accessible, and reliable nationwide charging network.

For more information on how electric vehicles improve grid reliability, see this blog.

Additional Elements in the Proposal

While the proposed Phase 3 greenhouse standards for heavy-duty vehicles are incredibly underwhelming, there are other welcome aspects of the agency’s proposal.

EPA is proposing to strengthen its “Phase 2” greenhouse gas standards for certain medium- and heavy-duty vehicles beyond what the agency finalized in 2016. These revisions would apply to vehicle model years 2027 through 2029 and would only impact a targeted portion of all trucks and buses – specifically, school buses, transit buses, delivery trucks, and short haul trucks. The rationale for this agency action is due to technological advances, the historic investments from Congress, and the state-level policy action that has pushed manufacturers to increasingly focus on zero-emission vehicles.

EPA is also proposing to amend its Clean Air Act preemption regulations for locomotives to more closely align with the statute’s intent and to ensure that states are no longer impeded from addressing air pollutant emissions from locomotives. This is particularly important given the impact that the freight rail industry has on public health and on states and local entities meeting their air quality requirements and we support the agency taking this action.

Next Steps & How You Can Help

EPA is seeking comment on this proposal over the next couple of months. NRDC will work with the Moving Forward Network and other public-interest groups and stakeholders to provide feedback on the agency’s proposal and push EPA to finalize the strongest possible clean trucks standard, to protect our climate and public health. And every voice counts—you too can help by telling EPA to adopt the strongest rule.

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