Keep in mind that truck and engine makers have invested an incredible amount of research and...

Keep in mind that truck and engine makers have invested an incredible amount of research and development and engineering efforts and costs to meet the Phase 2 GHG rules.

Photo: Jim Park

You may have heard by now that there is a little dustup happening simultaneously out West and back East and, well, when you get right down to it, pretty much all over the country. What literally overnight whirled into a gathering storm of government vs. government lawsuits was launched by the Trump Administration yanking open the political Pandora’s Box known as the California vehicle-emissions exemption.

On Sept. 19, the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency jointly issued a final rule that will force all 50 states to comply with “nationwide uniform fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards for automobiles and light duty trucks.”

On Sept. 20, California along with 23 other states and the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. jointly sued the Trump Administration on the basis that it had moved to unlawfully remove the Golden State's waiver of federal emission rules that had been granted under the Clean Air Act. 

What’s more— and this came only hours after word came the waiver is to be revoked— the head of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols, announced that four of the world’s largest automakers were holding to an agreement already made to meet the state’s GHG emission standards, which are stricter than those federally imposed. Nichols thanked Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW for “standing their ground” despite administration efforts to force them to violate the agreement, according to a news report posted by The Sacramento Bee.

Trump’s “One National Program Rule” both affirms NHTSA’s statutory authority to set nationally applicable fuel economy standards and serves notice that EPA is withdrawing the Clean Air Act preemption waiver it granted to the State of California in January 2013 as it relates to California’s greenhouse gas and zero-emission vehicle programs.

As The Bee report explains, California had made an agreement with the Obama that would cut GHG emissions from cars by about 30% by 2025. And since building lighter cars is the most practical way of lowering carbon emissions, the plan called for upping corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards from 35 mpg to about 50 mpg.

Once Trump first signaled he would roll back those standards, California began negotiating with individual car makers. Those deals were announced this summer and would maintain the Obama rules, but give automakers another year (until 2026) to meet the new emissions limits.

That California could set its own stricter-than-federal emission rules— and see numerous states adopt them— is nothing new. The state was first gained the right to submit waivers for review in 1968 under the Clean Air Act. From then on, it has been issued waivers to let it set emission standards higher than the federal limits, all of which was predicated on the state's epic battle against air pollution and smog. Never before has the federal government revoked one of these waivers.

A 2017 whitepaper on U.S. vehicle emission compliance for the  International Council on Clean Transportation, authored by researchers  Hui He and Lingzhi Jin,  points out that the “comprehensive vehicle emission compliance program adopted in the United States was built up over several decades. The process involved a learning curve for both regulators and industry. In the early 1970s and 1980s, there were many contentious cases that ended up in court. Gradually, both the EPA and CARB demonstrated their technical competence to industry by showing their data was able to withstand the scrutiny of industry experts.”

That’s the history and the here and now will soon shift into a courtroom. But not so fast, contends CNBC Reporter Tucker Higgins, who sees the administration having “a steep hill to climb” before it can actually revoke the waiver. “The legal battle raises novel questions about the Clean Air Act, a landmark piece of legislation signed into law in 1963, that will be tested for the first time in this case. The case is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” Higgins observes in his piece.

He also rightly contends that “there is virtually no way in which the legal fight is over before the 2020 presidential election, meaning voters will also get a say in the matter.”

So, what does this mean for the Phase 2 GHG rules already in place for commercial vehicles? Essentially nothing.

No manufacturer or provider of engines or trucks (GVW-rated from Class 2C through Class 8) has ever sought a rollback of the GHG limits that were drawn up and imposed by the Obama administration in 2015.

Yes, back then there were OEMs that argued against separately issued standards on engines and on “complete” vehicles. But again, there was no argument against meeting the GHG goals for trucks, in principle or in practice, and as a result, the GHG rules continue to be met— and with about zero fuss from engine or truck makers.

When the Phase 2 rules were rolled out four summers ago, the reaction from stakeholders ran the gamut from cautionary to laudatory. At that time, the president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA) said that the Phase 1 GHG rules had been successfully implemented because those standards “were well aligned with EMA member efforts to meet customer demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles.... [and] we look forward to reviewing the current proposal to ensure that the EPA and DOT Phase II proposal continues to align with manufacturers’ efforts and customer needs.”

To be sure, truck and engine makers have invested an incredible amount of research and development and engineering efforts and costs to meet the Phase 2 rules. 

What’s more, these suppliers are all global players, which means they need to meet similar emission standards around the world. And those rules are starting to converge, so the last thing any of them wants now is to see the rules here— in the world’s biggest truck market-- upended.

Just a few days ago, an OEM source made a telling point when I asked whether the Trump car-waiver revocation would reverberate on truck developments: “Truck and engine makers were the only ones that did not go to the [Trump] White House looking to change GHG and fuel economy rules.”

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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