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New Pollution Rules Aim to Lift Sales of Electric Trucks

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The Biden administration on Friday announced a regulation designed to turbocharge sales of electric or other zero-emission heavy vehicles, from school buses to cement mixers, as part of its multifront attack on global warming.

The Environmental Protection Agency projects the new rule could mean that 25 percent of new long-haul trucks, the heaviest on the road, and 40 percent of medium-size trucks, like box trucks and landscaping vehicles, could be nonpolluting by 2032. Today, fewer than 2 percent of new heavy trucks sold in the United States fit that bill.

The regulation would apply to more than 100 types of vehicles including tractor-trailers, ambulances, R.V.s, garbage trucks and moving vans.

The rule does not mandate the sales of electric trucks or any other type of zero or low-emission truck. Rather, it increasingly limits the amount of pollution allowed from trucks across a manufacturer’s product line over time, starting in model year 2027. It would be up to the manufacturer to decide how to comply. Options could include using technologies like hybrids or hydrogen fuel cells or sharply increasing the fuel efficiency of the conventional trucks.

The truck regulation follows another rule made final last week that is designed to ensure that the majority of new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States are all-electric or hybrids by 2032, up from just 7.6 percent last year.

Together, the car and truck rules are intended to slash carbon dioxide pollution from transportation, the nation’s largest source of the fossil fuel emissions that are driving climate change and that helped to make 2023 the hottest year in recorded history. Electric vehicles are central to President Biden’s strategy to confront global warming, which calls for cutting the nation’s emissions in half by the end of this decade.

“Today E.P.A. is taking another giant step forward to protect future generations from climate change,” said Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the agency.

Mr. Regan noted that heavy trucks are vital to moving goods throughout the country but that the pollution they generate does not just fuel climate change, it also worsens air quality in many communities. New limits on truck tailpipe emissions, combined with other regulations, means “we’re tackling both of the public health challenges head on,” Mr. Regan said.

The agency said that the transition to cleaner trucks would help reduce emissions of soot and other pollutants that affect about 72 million people who live near freight truck routes in the United States. Studies have shown that those affected are disproportionately low-income and people of color.

“Exposure to traffic-related pollution is a serious health hazard to those living in communities with heavy truck traffic,” Harold Wimmer, president and chief executive of the American Lung Association, said in a statement. Air pollution has been linked to a range of health effects, including poor birth outcomes and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as premature death.

The truck tailpipe limits are expected to prevent about a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2055, equivalent to the annual emissions from burning the gasoline carried by more than 13 million tanker trucks, according to the E.P.A. The agency estimates that by 2055, it will provide $13 billion in average annual net benefits to society related to public health, the climate and fuel savings for truck owners and operators.

All-electric passenger vehicles, while still just a small slice of the American automobile market, are no longer a niche product. As prices of E.V.s have dropped and made some models competitive with conventional cars, a record 1.2 million electric passenger vehicles rolled off dealers’ lots last year.

The same can’t be said for electric trucks, and widespread adoption seems far down the road. Today, electric trucks can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, two or three times the sticker price of a diesel truck, although prices may drop as production expands, and owners may enjoy fuel savings and lower maintenance costs. An electric truck requires a big, heavy battery that reduces the amount of cargo the vehicle can haul. Electric trucks also require extremely powerful chargers. Utilities may need to upgrade distribution lines, transformers and other equipment to deliver the energy needed to refuel several trucks simultaneously.

While there are nearly 200,000 public chargers for electric passenger vehicles, there are just 5,000 charging stations in the United States that are capable of serving heavy trucks, according to the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, which represents companies that build and make equipment for heavy-duty trucks. Of those, there are only nine public fast charging stations that are capable of serving heavy trucks, according to the Energy Department. The rest are privately owned in warehouses and depots. The truck makers association estimates that a mix of a million public and private chargers would be needed to serve the number of electric trucks envisioned by the truck regulation.

“If the infrastructures are not there, customers simply will not be able to operate zero emission vehicles,” said Jed Mandel, president of the association. His organization includes the nation’s three largest truck manufacturers — Daimler Truck, which owns Freightliner; Volvo Trucks; and Traton, a unit of Volkswagen that owns Navistar. Those companies pushed hard for the E.P.A. to relax some requirements in the final version of the regulation.

The agency did make some concessions. It relaxed the pace at which truck manufacturers must comply with the rule in its early years, ramping it up sharply only after 2030.

On Wednesday, the manufacturers offered a muted response to the rule. John Mies, a spokesman for Volvo Group North America, said in a statement that his company was “completely aligned with E.P.A.’s objective of speeding the transition to zero-emission vehicles.” He said the final regulation was “more realistic than what was originally proposed.”

But customers won’t buy the vehicles unless they are confident they can be easily charged, something that the Biden administration cannot guarantee, Mr. Mies said.

“This is an ambitious goal, and there will be challenges across our industry to reach it,” said Jon Mills, a spokesman for Cummins, an Indiana-based company that makes conventional truck engines and has started manufacturing electric versions. He said that Cummins was “uniquely positioned” to develop and make a broad range of technologies.

But truckers are fearful. “This administration seems dead set on regulating every local mom-and-pop business out of existence with its flurry of unworkable environmental mandates,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers’ Association, which represents truck drivers.

Mike Nichols, a trucker based in Chippewa Falls, Wis., who owns an eighteen-wheeler in which he hauls rice, sugar and grain, said he would never buy an all-electric truck, even with the help of generous government subsidies. “They can’t haul as heavily,” he said. “They can’t do as much work.”

Mr. Nichols is skeptical that enough charging stations will be built to support long haul truckers. And he said that while he spends about $50,000 a year on diesel fuel, he imagines that the cost of electricity needed to charge a heavy-duty electric vehicle battery could in some cases equal or even surpass that.

“Their ambitions may be laudable, but they haven’t thought this through,” he said of the new rule.

Former President Donald J. Trump, who is running to retake the White House, has repeatedly attacked Mr. Biden’s policies designed to accelerate a transition to all-electric passenger vehicles. His campaign did not respond to a request for a comment on the truck regulation.

But Republicans on Capitol Hill said they would introduce legislation to try to delete the new rule. Senators Pete Ricketts of Nebraska and Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Representatives John James of Michigan and Russ Fulcher of Idaho said in a statement: “Biden’s E.V. mandates are delusional. American consumers and workers will pay the price for his administration’s attempt to get rid of internal-combustion engines.”

Experts say that tighter tailpipe limits for trucks are achievable. “This is going to deploy more electric trucks on the road, but it’s also going to deploy more fuel-efficient conventional diesel trucks,” said Ray Minjares, the director of heavy duty vehicle programs at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a research organization which works closely with the E.P.A. on developing policy. “It’s not intended to to electrify all heavy-duty trucks.”

The rule is intended to force the greatest transformation of short-haul vehicles, such as school and city buses, garbage trucks and moving vans — vehicles that travel fewer than 250 miles a day and return to the same spot each night where they could recharge, said Mr. Minjares. At least two-thirds of heavy truck journeys are less than 250 miles, well within the range of electric trucks available today, according to Calstart, a nonprofit group whose members work in industry as well as government.

“It has felt out of reach to move goods around in a way that polluted less, but now for the first time there are solutions that are within reach,” said Albert Gore III, director of the Zero Emission Transportation Association and the son of Al Gore, the former vice president and Nobel-winning climate activist. “It’s a highly solvable problem.”

California and 10 other states have already enacted regulations that are even more ambitious than the E.P.A. rule. Those states are requiring that half of all new heavy-duty vehicles sold must be all-electric by 2035.

And companies with truck fleets are starting to invest in electric models. Frito-Lay is operating 15 all-electric 18-wheel Semi trucks, made by Tesla, from a depot in Modesto, Calif., where they make daily trips delivering Doritos, Lays and other snacks to warehouses and then return each night to charge.

4 Gen Logistics, a trucking company based in Rialto, Calif., has 70 zero-emission trucks manufactured by Volvo Trucks, Kenworth, BYD and Nikola. “Some of these trucks are driving just 50 miles a day,” said David Thornburg, a contractor who helped 4 Gen set up the zero-emission fleet.

The company, which hauls containers from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to warehouses elsewhere in Southern California, intends to phase out its 20 remaining diesel trucks next year. The electric trucks typically charge overnight at 4 Gen depots.

Mr. Thornburg noted, though, that installing chargers is expensive and time-consuming. “Some of that equipment has a one-year lead time,” he said. “It’s not something you can just pull off the shelf.”

Companies may be eligible for federal subsidies. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law provides $7.5 billion for electric charging infrastructure, including charging stations for heavy-duty trucks, and $5.6 billion to help fund zero and low-emission buses. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act provides $1 billion for electric trucks, including tax credits of up to $40,000 for companies that buy them, as well as subsidies for charging infrastructure. Earlier this month, the Energy Department and the Transportation Department announced a strategy to prioritize construction of heavy-duty electric truck chargers in designated “zero-emission freight corridors.”

That government help is essential, especially for smaller firms, Mr. Thornburg said. “These are $10 million sites,” Mr. Thornburg said. “It’s very difficult to put that capital down without assistance from others.”

“If you’re a trucking company, it’s hard enough to stay afloat,” he said.

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