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On Earth Day, ex-EPA head Whitman has message for freight industry

Former Bush administration official wants to see more use of rail and fewer trucks on the road

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 following a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Now, 1 billion people across more than 190 countries mobilize annually to reduce pollution and its impacts on human health and protect the planet from irreversible climate change.

Companies in the freight industry are increasingly embracing strategies to reduce their carbon emissions and air pollution. Despite major strides — including multiple low and zero-emissions trucks under development — the industry remains reliant on fossils fuels, while alternatives are often cost-prohibitive

Christine Todd Whitman was the 50th governor of New Jersey and first woman to serve in that role, from 1994 to 2001. She was the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003 during the George W. Bush administration and is now part of the Earth Day Network Global Advisory Committee.

FreightWaves asked Whitman about what steps the freight industry can take to embrace the theme of Earth Day 2022, “Invest in Our Planet.”

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

FREIGHTWAVES: How did you become interested in climate change?

WHITMAN: “I’ve been interested in climate change for a long time since I was governor and actually before, as president of the board of public utilities in New Jersey. When we deregulated, we made a requirement that they have a certain amount of green power, renewable energy. Tiny at the time, but climate change wasn’t as significant a focus as it is today.

“I also grew up on a farm. On a farm, you see day-to-day the impact that humans can have on the environment. And you understand how important it is that we watch what we do because it does change things. And sometimes it can do irreparable harm.” 

(Photo: Christine Todd Whitman)

FREIGHTWAVES: Why do you think Earth Day is important?

WHITMAN: “The thing about Earth Day is it brings people together. It focuses people on the issue. There are stories every day, and Lord knows people ought to have a full appreciation of just how serious an issue climate change is by now. 

“We see it every day with these terrible storms going through the Midwest and the Southeast. People are losing their homes, their jobs, and so many times even their lives because of it. 

“It’s costing us as a country billions of dollars every year in recovery. 

“This is one day when everybody around the world focuses on this issue. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s important that we continue to celebrate it. 

“The first Earth Day, I remember that. People held hands up and down crossroads and highways and bridges to say we have to protect our earth. That’s what we were given. It’s our responsibility.” 

Read: What can we expect on Earth Day 2022?

FREIGHTWAVES:  How do you think the freight industry can ‘invest in our planet?’

WHITMAN: “Moving things by rail is better than by truck. It’s less polluting if you’re looking at it from that perspective. But then you have to figure out providing alternative opportunities for the truck drivers. This is where the government has a role to play at the local, state and national levels. 

“You’re probably not going to turn a 45 to 55 year old truck driver into a high-tech person. That’s not going to be the job in which they’ll have an interest. But they can be trained and be enormously effective in manufacturing and in a host of other jobs that go with creating this new environment. 

“We’re at a point where you hear the phrase ‘tipping point’ so often, and people have moved beyond it. If you say that too often, they’ll say, ‘Okay, we probably already tipped, why bother with any of this? Because it’s too late.’ It’s not too late. But this is serious, and we need to understand that.

Read: Report: Climate change ‘creating shocks to global trade’

“It’s always painful to move to different technologies – to a different economic basis. People get displaced. It’s not always easy. 

“We have to understand that sometimes it’s difficult to make the changes, but we have to make them if we are going to survive on this planet. If our children and grandchildren are going to have a place to live, we have to take these steps. We have to do the best we can not to leave anybody behind. 

“There will always be some who we just can’t do enough for it. That’s going to be the way it is. We have to figure out how to make sure that it’s as least painful as it can be for them.”

FREIGHTWAVES: What are some improvements you’ve seen in the freight industry in the past year?

WHITMAN: “I think it has been the commitment that so many companies have made to moving toward electric and being more efficient with how they plan their routes and how they move things. 

“I remember at EPA, we had a pilot program we ran up in New York City at a place where the truckers tended to stay after they’d offloaded and before they loaded again. And they stayed in their trucks. Those were their homes on the road. 

“We provided these plug-in stations where they could plug in their air conditioning, and their iPads and iPhones. At that point, you had trucks that were almost exclusively diesel. 

“This would be a way for them to stay comfortable without having to run their engines, polluting that area terribly. It was obviously detrimental to the health of the people who lived in the area, and not much less to the environment as a whole. 

“I don’t know what happened to that program, but it appeared to be very effective. The truckers that did use them – drove in and plugged into those stations – were very, very happy with the results.

“You’re not going to make the transition overnight. You’re not going to suddenly have a whole fleet of electric trucks because it’s expensive, and you need to have the critical mass. 

“We need to have some subsidy from the government to help with that transition. Until we do that, we need some of these alternatives to help make that transition.”

FREIGHTWAVES: How do you think the COP26 climate conference impacted industries such as freight?

WHITMAN: “It put more pressure on [industries] because it had 200 countries agree to certain critical standards. They’re not necessarily meeting them all, and they had no legal obligation except to report. But that put peer pressure on. And as things get more obvious on the damage from climate change, that peer pressure is just ratcheting up. 

“It’s coming from your generation and the generation following you. Younger people get it. They want to see the changes. They are excited by the creative opportunities that are there. 

“When you’ve had the hundreds of countries that signed onto that all around the world — developing countries, as well as developed countries — it, like Earth Day, focused the issue and made some at least moral commitments on the behalf of the countries that have gone back. 

“And they’re taking a look at, ‘How do we meet these standards?’ The transportation industry is certainly one of the first targets.”

Read: What is the future of sustainability in supply chain education?

FREIGHTWAVES: What are some challenges facing the freight industry in this transition?

WHITMAN: “Cost, cost and cost, frankly. That’s the biggest. But there are more than that. Moving to EVs also implies you have the infrastructure in the critical places so a truck can plug in. If you don’t have it along the routes where you have the most pressure, it’s not going to work. 

“So we have to figure out how we ensure that we have the infrastructure for them to be able to plug in. But the cost is going to be a big factor for them. And that’s where you’re going to have to have some help.”

FREIGHTWAVES: What do you think could help relieve those challenges?

WHITMAN: “It’s going to be government. It’s going to be supplying some tax relief, if [trucking companies] go electric. It could be just straight out grants for going electric or low-cost loans for going electric. 

“There are a lot of ways that the government could structure relief to various industries to help them move and make transitions. And we have to be looking at all of those.”

FREIGHTWAVES: What changes would you like to see by Earth Day next year?

WHITMAN: “It would be good to see that there is a commitment to this – that we have a start. But it is not uncomplicated shall we say? 

“We have to figure out how to make it affordable. You have to figure out what you do with the batteries. You have to provide the charging stations in the critical areas where it makes sense for truckers particularly to change their routes. 

“I think what I would like to see, and what I think is completely doable, is a greater understanding of the importance of rail transport and how that can really help and reduce the amount of trucks on the road, which, just for wear and tear on the road itself, would be a relief.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Do you have any parting thoughts?

WHITMAN: “I’m just glad that it’s being focused on – transportation and freight – because everybody has a role to play in addressing the issue of climate change.

“Too often it is looked on as just a responsibility of environmental agencies and the environmentalists. It’s not. It’s everybody. Everybody has a role to play.

“Decisions being made, whether it’s housing, transportation, healthcare or schools, all have a role to play in reducing the amount of emissions that are causing this critical problem.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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Alyssa Sporrer

Alyssa is a staff writer at FreightWaves, covering sustainability news in the freight and supply chain industry, from low-carbon fuels to social sustainability, emissions & more. She graduated from Iowa State University with a double major in Marketing and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about all things environmental and enjoys outdoor activities such as skiing, ultimate frisbee, hiking, and soccer.