The color of money

Linda Longton, Editor

Green is one hot hue these days. Al Gore won an Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental efforts, particularly the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” which warns of the dire consequences of global warming. Corporations such as Wal-Mart go to great lengths to publicize their earth-saving strategies. And virtually every product from toothpaste to floorboards has its organic/renewable/Earth-sustaining counterpart.

As if we needed another indication of how all-consuming environmental issues have become, the Roman Catholic Church last month declared pollution to be a mortal sin, on a par with drug dealing and pedophilia.

Is it any wonder trucking has jumped on board? More than 400 carriers, from one-truck owner-operators to 12,000-truck Schneider National, have joined the SmartWay Transport Partnership, committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and to improving trucks’ fuel efficiency. U.S. consumption of biodiesel increased from about 25 million gallons in 2004 to more than 225 million gallons in 2006.

Not surprisingly, trucking’s green momentum directly correlates to the price of diesel fuel. When diesel was $1.50 per gallon, only scrupulously cost-conscious truckers watched their speed, kept their tires inflated for optimum fuel savings and cared how many hours they idled each day. But with fuel hovering around $4, owner-operators who ignore these practices are on the brink of financial disaster. The threat of fines from ever-tightening anti-idling regulations only adds to the economic pressure.

That’s not to say that truckers don’t care about the environment. More than a third of respondents to an poll say they recycle whenever they can. Not great, but not bad, considering recycling for an over-the-road trucker is not as easy as walking plastics out to the blue bin on the curb. Then there are owner-operators such as Michael Frybarger of Thurmont, Md., who care deeply about saving the environment for future generations. Frybarger walks the talk by using biodiesel, promoting renewable fuels through and participating in biodiesel events around the country.

But even truckers who are committed to the environment can’t run green solely out of a deep-seated desire to preserve the Earth. If green practices don’t make economic sense, they just aren’t feasible in this penny-margin business.

If $4 diesel has a silver lining, it’s this: Changes in our approach to energy use – reducing our dependency on foreign oil, pushing for alternative fuels, encouraging the use of more fuel-efficient equipment – must “start happening big time now,” Frybarger says. “I don’t know if they can get a 35-mpg big truck, but if they get one, I’ll buy it.”

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