The election of Donald Trump as president has opened up questions about many issues that most people thought were settled. Heavy truck emissions are one such topic. After all, Trump stated repeatedly during the campaign that be believes climate change to be a hoax and that he would abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once in office.
So, at the very least we can assume that enforcing or expanding emissions regulations for diesel trucks won't be a priority for the incoming president. And, it's not out of realm of possibility that he may actively attempt to undermine – or even undo – existing regulations.
So it's worth asking what fleets can expect in the coming four years in terms of emissions regulations and requirements.
I venture to guess that the majority of fleet executives and maintenance directors I know tend to accept emissions regulations with resignation, if not outright hostility. But getting rid of them might not be such a simple proposition, regardless of what our new president decides to do. Here are some things to keep in mind over the coming months:
The United States doesn't operate in a vacuum when it comes to emissions
No matter what you, I, or the incoming president think about climate change, the rest of the world clearly is worried about the issue and is taking steps to combat it. Like or not, the United States has already signed various carbon-reduction treaties with countries around the world. And reneging on our obligations per those agreements would be problematic in terms of our our standing and trustworthiness in the international community.
Moreover, countries that are committed to fighting climate change, notably France and the European Union, have already signaled that should the United States walk away from international climate they would consider imposing a "carbon tax" of 1 to 3% for all U.S.-made goods. Such a penalty would make it markedly tougher for U.S. businesses and products to compete in the global marketplace.
Emissions backsliding would put the OEMs in a tough spot
Diesel truck and engine manufacturers don't design their products solely for the United States any more. Most of the major players in the heavy truck market are massive corporations that sell their products in every corner of the globe. Even International Trucks, the sole remaining U.S.-owned OEM, has been selling trucks in South America for years and is currently strengthening its ties with Europe, thanks to Volkswagen's stock purchase this past summer.
The fact is that designing vehicle and engine platforms to meet global emissions standards in various stages of adoption has been a nightmare for diesel truck and engine OEMs. Suddenly repealing decades worth of emissions regulations would throw the industry into chaos and render billions of dollars spent on research and development suddenly worthless.
Moreover, as noted above, it is likely that foreign governments would threaten OEMs with additional carbon taxes and penalties if they did backtrack on U.S. emissions. And that's assuming OEMs would even take advantage of any emissions regulation easement even if they did become available. The financial penalties are just too severe given the highly compressed timeframe we're talking about here: About all you can say for certain if you're a CEO at a truck OEM is that any regulation break will last four years. What happens if Trump doesn't get reelected? Suddenly you have to scramble and make up those four years and get back to compliance as quickly as possible? It simply doesn't make good business sense.
In fact, I'd go so far as to predict even if President Trump were to somehow kill urea-based emissions control systems and upcoming greenhouse gas regulations, the OEMs would just shrug their shoulders, point to the international public opinion and global markets, and simply stick to their established emissions technology plans.
Don't forget California
You don't even have to go overseas to find fierce resistance to rolling back diesel exhaust emissions regulations. California, Oregon and Washington are certainly not going to back down in the face of a federal rollback on anti-pollution laws.
These so-called CARB states (based on the California Air Resource Board) have in many ways been far ahead of the federal government on emissions regulations and have played a major role in crafting U.S. EPA policies to date.
Anyone who thinks these Western states will just simply shrug their shoulders and walk away from their climate change initiatives is daydreaming. In fact, given their overall antagonism to Trump's election thus far, I'd say it's a good bet these states can be expected to dig their heels in even deeper when it comes to emissions regulations if the Trump administration moves to roll them back. And they'd be doing so from a position of considerable power: It's often noted that California alone is the sixth largest economy on the planet today. And if you want to do business in their state, they're going to insist you play by their rules – like it or not.
The public may not be OK with an emissions rollback
The final factor to consider here is the public at large, which rarely is an advocate for easing any type of regulations on the trucking industry. That said, while I have no doubt that many businesses and corporations would love to see a whole host of environmental regulations discarded or rolled back, I'm not so sure the public at large is going to be all that crazy about such a move.
For starters, bear in mind that a great many Americans do believe that climate change is real and a threat to their way of life. In many cases those people are already demanding that their goods and services are delivered by "green" truck fleets. And there's no reason to think that attitude will change just because Donald Trump is president.
Putting climate ideologues aside for a moment, it's worth asking what the reaction of everyday Americans who pay little or no attention to trucking will be if they suddenly see those long-absent puffs of black smoke churning out of exhaust stacks again. Unless there are dramatic and immediate positive paybacks for average Americans' pocketbooks, it's going to be very hard for the trucking industry to spin non-emissions trucks as a good thing to the public at large.
Emissions regulations have been a tough pill for the trucking industry to swallow. And they have helped reshape the industry in ways that many people don't like. Certainly Donald Trump is the type of president most trucking professionals welcome in the White House today.
But presidents aren't miracle workers and, like the rest of us, are often subjected to market forces beyond their control. And the reality of the climate change debate today is that there are significant, and powerful, forces opposed to any meaningful rollback on emissions regulations. And while I can't predict what will happen on this front in the near future, I will caution anyone not to expect any emissions easement without first winning a ferocious fight on multiple fronts.