When President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January, he is expected to pursue a climate- focused clean energy agenda: Rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, reinstate Obama’s clean power plan and approve policies supporting zero-emission cars and trucks.
Nevertheless, rumours of diesel’s death under the incoming administration are greatly exaggerated, industry advocates and trucking efficiency experts said.
“President-elect Biden has been through many iterations of landmark clean air and energy policy during his career, and I think [he realizes] the substantial progress made in reducing emissions from diesel engines,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum.
While Biden will promote alternative fuels, the 46th president will be “a realist” about it, Schaeffer believes, understanding “that these take time to come to meaningful scale, and that existing fuels and technologies like diesel are driving the economy.”
Cleaner diesel regulations, and how they might change
Drawing a contrast with passenger car emissions regulations, Schaeffer noted that the Trump administration did not move aggressively to relax or eliminate rules impacting heavy-duty truck or diesel engine standards.
So while Biden is expected to reverse Trump rollbacks on passenger vehicle auto emission standards, Schaeffer said there is no comparable “resetting” of Trump rules back to Obama rules when it comes to policies impacting the nation’s heavy duty trucks, 97% of which run on diesel.
One exception is the Trump EPA’s rollback of glider-kit production limits included in the federal GHG Phase 2 emission rules. But that rule has not been acted on further. “They effectively let that wither on the vine,” Schaeffer said.
Glider kits, remanufactured engines combined with new cabs and chassis frames, put out significantly more emissions than new trucks.
Drilling down into some of the other policies impacting diesel businesses, Schaffer said he expects that the Cleaner Trucks Initiative, a plan already in motion at EPA to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, will be finalized, although approval will probably take longer under the new leadership.
“I am sure that the incoming EPA administration will want to review the rule and put their individual influence on it.”
This summer California passed its own heavy-duty low NOx rule, a regulation many in industry opposed, hoping instead for a single national standard. Environmental groups for their part have expressed concern that the national rule would be weaker than the California law.
Even so, the EPA rule, under Biden, is unlikely to turn out more like California’s, Schaeffer opined. That’s because the latter’s low NOx rule is based on the state’s unique air quality needs, he said.
Southern California air quality consistently ranks among the worst in the nation, with many of the pollutants coming from medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
Schaeffer expects continued support for the Diesel Emission Reduction Act, a law passed in 2005 — the first appropriations were doled out in 2008 — to help fleets retrofit or replace aging diesel engines to newer cleaner models. Sen. Biden supported the bill in Congress, and it originated with his fellow senator from Delaware, Tom Carper.
A national clean truck sales mandate?
The biggest clean transportation policy shift under the Biden administration is its climate agenda.
Under the Trump administration, California took the lead on the transition away from fossil fuel, passing the world’s first heavy-duty electric truck sales standard and banning gas-powered vehicles by mid-century.
With large OEMs such as General Motors (NYSE: GM) already pivoting away from Trump toward California and Biden, the new administration is expected to ride a burgeoning wave of support for electric vehicles policies and executive orders. (Mary Nichols, California’s chief air quality regulator, is a leading candidate to run a Biden EPA.)
Nevertheless, Schaeffer, for one, doesn’t see Biden supporting outright bans on fossil fuel technology.
“Diesel will continue to play a dominant role in goods movement and many other sectors of the economy for some time,” he said — “decades to come, even as new fuels and technologies are advanced.”
A poly fuel approach
Mike Roeth, executive director of the fuel-agnostic North American Council For Freight Efficiency, said the transition away from diesel to zero-emissions trucks is not a matter of if but when.
“But that ‘when’ could be a matter of decades,” he said, and in the interim, “we ought to work to improve the adoption of anything that is better.”
When it comes to diesel, as well as clean diesel (a technology that yields less pollution and additional fuel savings), Roeth explained, industry should continue to improve environmental performance through mechanisms such as low NOx regulations and better truck aerodynamics — “all the things that help the entire truck burn less fuel” and emit fewer pollutants.
Unsurprisingly, diesel businesses echoed those claims, emphasizing the long-term game plan associated with electrifying transportation.
“If you look at the Biden administration, everyone has heard them talk about a zero-carbon-emissions platform,” said Charles Culverhouse, CEO of Old World Industries, one of the largest privately held companies competing in the automotive aftermarket.
“We all agree that will be a true benefit to the environment,” Culverhouse said, “but it is an aspirational goal.”
In the meantime, companies like OWI, the country’s largest supplier of diesel exhaust fluid, will benefit from increasing stringent low NOx standards coming down the pike, Culverhouse said.
“The diesel markets are the cleanest they have ever been, and we see our company as a supplier into those markets.” OWI doesn’t see diesel going away anytime soon,” he added, “and we don’t see anything that is concerning for us.”
The past is not dead; it’s not even past
Virtually every company in the industry is assessing the transition to zero-emission trucks and what that means to their particular businesses, Roeth said.
“It’s easy for me to say you have to keep working on the diesels,” he said. “But over time you got to do both. Whether you’re a truck builder or engine builder or others, at some point you have to say, ‘Where is my investment going?’”
There will be a tipping point, said Roeth, “where you’ve got to work on the future stuff more than you do the past.
“But that past is going to be here a long time.”