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California emissions law brings “catch me if you can” era to a close

Fleets will not be able to register noncompliant trucks with the DMV.

Thanks to ramped up enforcement, California air quality regulators have reduced the number of state-registered heavy duty trucks that are out of compliance with diesel emissions laws from around 80,000 in 2017 to 50,000 today.

A new rule that goes into effect in 2020 is expected to rope in the final scofflaws. Starting in January, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will only register vehicles that comply with the diesel pollution requirements.

“When I’m out in the field, I’ve had many people come up to me and say: ‘I’ll do something when you catch me,’” said Bruce Tuter, manager of the compliance assistance and outreach section for the California Air Resources Board (CARB). “Well, now they’re going to get caught.”

Phasing in regulation

California’s Truck and Bus rule, the state’s key law regulating heavy duty diesel emissions, was adopted in 2008. The phased-in requirements mandated heavy trucks meet particulate matter filter requirements beginning January 1, 2012. Older heavier trucks had to be replaced starting January 1, 2015.

By January 1, 2023, nearly all trucks and buses will need to have 2010 model year engines or the equivalent.

Eighteen months ago the compliance rate for trucks registered in-state hovered around 70 percent, said Tuter. “That’s really not very good. We said: ‘we’re really not getting the health benefits.’ Our goal is to protect the health of the people in California.”

Aiming to boost the number of trucks meeting the guidelines, the agency in 2017 started to intensify enforcement, drilling down into DMV data to determine if a given vehicle was compliant. (About 420,000 heavy duty trucks are registered with the California DMV.)

If noncompliant truck owners didn’t respond within 30 days to a notice of violation, the agency placed a hold on the vehicle’s DMV registration.

“Right now, we’ve sent over 15,000 noncompliance notices that have impacted 30,000 trucks,” Tuter said. The agency has requested from the DMV over 15,000 registration holds, he said, and has sent 140,000 deadline notices in the past two years to those with upcoming compliance deadlines. 

Fines for violation run in the thousands of dollars.

The 2020 rule, part of a new gas and diesel tax package, takes existing enforcement practices one step further – by automating the registration hold.

“If you are not compliant with our regulation then you will not be issued a registration,” Tuter said. “It’s real this time. It’s going to happen.”

Industry representatives doubled down on that warning.

“There certainly has been an attitude of ‘catch me if you can,’ said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs for the Western States Trucking Association. “This new law really nails that down, and there are segments of the industry that are going to be hit pretty hard.”

Most of the noncompliant vehicles are owned by small trucking businesses and not the large fleets, he said.

After filing and losing a lawsuit against the diesel pollution rule, WSTA has thrown its support behind the registration law, Rajkovacz said. “We do support organizationally the change because it will ultimately level the playing field with those who have made the investment. If I have to comply, everybody should comply.”

Industry to take a hit

That said, from a capacity standpoint, the law is going to have an impact, Rajkovacz said. He estimates the construction industry alone will lose 20 percent of its capacity once the rule takes effect next January.

“It’s going to take a hit, a dramatic hit.”

CARB’s financial incentives and outreach efforts are designed to raise awareness and help truckers with the cost of upgrading their equipment, Tuter said. The agency’s education blitz (unfolding in three languages, English, Spanish and Punjabi) runs the gamut from webinars and mailers to billboards and telephone hotlines.

The DMV regulation will not impact out-of-state trucks, Tuter said, but it will free up agency time to focus on noncompliant vehicles coming across the border. The agency is looking into electronic monitoring to ensure cross-border compliance.

Trucking companies (in California and out-of-state) that met earlier diesel emissions mandates are going to be hit with a “double whammy,” Tuter and Rajkovacz warned. By 2023, all trucks must be outfitted with a 2010 engine, so vehicles that retrofitted under earlier guidelines will have to upgrade once again.

Tuter estimates about 200,000 trucks registered with the California DMV will become noncompliant in 2023 as a result of the engine mandate.

The value of older trucks is declining precipitously, Rajkovacz warned. “They ought to be [upgrading] right now,” he said.


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Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]