When environmental activists talk about trucking, they often talk about diesel fumes spewed by faceless corporations and hurting, maybe even killing, innocent children.
As such, the level of their opposition to the trucking industry, to the fossil fuels industries, or to any of the carbon-intensive businesses that make American life possible rises to a rhetorical matter of life and death. Often enough trucks, if not truckers themselves, get painted into the death side of the equation.
The EPA's recent virtual public hearings last week related to its Phase 3 greenhouse gas emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks saw no shortage of appeals to humanity, as the majority of testimony came from environmental groups, many of whom put heavy emphasis on young lungs.
Numerous commenters from the Moms Clean Air Force group, focused on combating air pollution and climate change, spoke either in favor of EPA’s proposal or to push for something stricter.
Emily Pickett, with the group's Florida chapter, said her community recently received a “D” grade in the America Lung Association’s 2023 State of the Air report. “This is something we cannot ignore,” she said. Pickett noted that her house is just a few miles from I-75, “one of the busiest interstates for truck traffic,” she said. “The stark reality is that my family and I, and others, are at risk of dangerous air pollution” because of their proximity to the road.
She added that she and her family experience “persistent symptoms” that doctors diagnose as seasonal allergies, but she believes they “could very well be experiencing the ill effects of smog." Ultimately, Pickett believed that a transition to zero-emission vehicles will “make a significant impact” and “with cleaner trucks, we can decrease the prevalence of pollution-driven negative health effects,” she said.
Others who testified called on the agency to strengthen its Phase 3 proposal even more.
Dr. William S. Beckett, a pulmonologist associated with Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said he has spent many years treating people with lung diseases and said “local air pollution most harms the health of people who live closest to highways.” He noted that the effects of pollution starts with exposure when a child is in the womb, affecting birth outcomes, and worsening as children get older. “The EPA needs to strengthen the proposal to eliminate tailpipe emissions from trucks,” he said.
Additionally, Trisha Delloiacono with the Calstart nonprofit group, said the organization urges “EPA to adopt Phase 3 standards that are stronger than those proposed,” adding that the proposal “should be based on deeper penetration of ZEVs than those proposed.” She said that matching California’s Advanced Clean Trucks penetration rates should be the minimum level the agency considers.
[Related: CARB playing hardball: Board votes to ban diesel sales in California in 2036]
Regarding infrastructure, Delloiacono acknowledged it as a “real near-term challenge, but not a long-term barrier,” adding that strong federal standards would “provide a critical market signal” that would spur EV manufacturers and utilities to meet future demand.
How did reps from truck manufacturing and adjacent industries respond? They didn't disagree, exactly.
Jed Mandel, president of the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, said his group fully supports EPA’s goals of reducing emissions, and only asked that the EPA include assurances that the required infrastructure for ZEV trucks, namely chargers and hydrogen infrastructure, would rise to the phased-in ZEV targets in the rules.
Yet as was noted in a prior report from last week's hearing, a representative from the National Association of Truck Stop Operators (NATSO) as well as the SIGMA association of fuel marketers expressed skepticism that electricity providers could in fact meet the demand from electric trucks. Indeed, one of the nation's biggest utilities, National Grid, recently released a study that said that if states like New York and California have their way, a single truck stop could have the power demand of an NFL stadium by 2025. By 2045, demand could approach the level of a large industrial factory.
“We’re not convinced local electricity providers can service that load in 10 years’ time,” said the NATSO rep, instead calling for more attention to renewable fuels, which emit net-net less carbon than traditional fuels, and without the boosted electrical demand.
Truck maker Daimler noted full support of the ZEV transition, but said the EPA's new regulations were "destined to fail until an emphasis is put on meeting the needs of the electric fleet," a representative testified.
[Related: 'Destined to fail': Trucking sounds off to EPA on Phase 3 greenhouse-gas regs]
Essentially, aside from some word choice differences, truck OEMs and environmental activists appear in agreement on this issue -- the transition to ZEV trucking. Yet OEMs and other industry stakeholders would actually have to execute the transition -- as such, they have plenty practical questions, few of which the activists addressed.
On May 3, the second day of the EPA hearings, a press blast from the Sierra Club landed in Overdrive email inboxes accusing the Volvo company of "hypocrisy," basically faking being an eco-friendly company because it "privately lobbies against regulations to delay the inevitable shift to life-saving pollution-free truck technologies."
The Sierra Club cited Volvo's membership in the EMA as proof that it's against the new EPA regs.
"Collectively, clean truck standards will prevent thousands of premature deaths, asthma attacks and incidents of lung disease and cancer," the organization wrote, citing American Lung Association estimates that a U.S. transition to ZEV trucks the country over would avoid 66,800 premature deaths and 1.75 million asthma attacks.
But as noted, the EMA is not against the new EPA regs. It supports them, only with a caveat that they'd like to see EV infrastructure rise to the occasion alongside the regs. The EMA's testimony to the EPA asks the agency to adopt "a final rule that includes a requirement to assess progress on the development of the needed infrastructure,” concluding with this:
"EMA looks forward to working with EPA and other stakeholders to ensure the final GHG Phase 3 rule will successfully facilitate a swift transition to ZEVs, leading to cleaner air and healthier communities."
Volvo supports the EPA regs, too.
"At this stage, the Volvo Group doesn’t oppose the proposed GHG Phase 3 regulations, and we remain committed to working with the EPA to help achieve the Administration’s GHG goals," said a spokesperson. The rules, and ZEVs in particular, "will play a key role in achieving meaningful emission reductions," the spokesperson continued, recognizing that "necessary penetration levels will be dependent upon the timely availability of sufficient power and charging infrastructure.
"The Volvo Group is actively working with its customers and other stakeholders to accelerate ZEV adoption in the marketplace, and we look forward to engaging with EPA in the coming months as part of its regulatory process."
[Related: EPA wants further comment on ZEVs' availability, support infrastructure]
So what's the problem? Katherine Garcia, director of the Sierra Club's Clean Transportation for All Campaign, said their organization had mistakenly hit Volvo over its non-existent opposition to the regulations. Instead, Garcia said they meant to focus on Volvo's membership in the EMA, which briefly sued over the California Air Resource Board's looming emissions requirements for new truck and engine builds.
"I generalized," she said when asked how Volvo had opposed the regulations. "But they have been on the record trying to delay or weaken regulations that would help ensure we have cleaner trucks on the road."
She admitted there were reasons a business like Volvo might have doubts about the future of EV infrastructure, and that her group and Volvo were indeed "completely aligned" on the need for ZEV transition.
According to Volvo, in the U.S., "nearly half of all heavy electric trucks registered in 2022 were Volvo trucks," making it one of the market leaders in zero-emissions trucking.
Still, this didn't stop the Sierra Club or any other environmental activists from drawing in images of premature death and asthma attacks for children brought on by diesel fumes.
Truck drivers breathe diesel exhaust, too. They get asthma, too. They have kids who live near interstates.
At the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Anaheim, California, last week, Volvo Trucks North America President Peter Voorhoeve showed a picture of a young girl and said Volvo has a global target to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2030 so children like her can experience the nature that is being affected by climate change.
Garcia said, "I wholeheartedly appreciate what truck drivers do" and wanted to make it clear that her organization's message "was not at all directed to saying anything negative at truck drivers."
The Sierra Club still supports stricter emissions regs, doesn't seem too keen on anyone casting doubt on their efforts, and in response to our questions did not present any concrete ideas for how to bridge the gap between today's diesel-driven reality and tomorrow's promised goals. But perhaps the conversation on these issues can de-escalate from the nightmares of death and damage to children to instead look for common ground.
[Related: Peterbilt, Kenworth fuel cell trucks to enter production]