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Environment, Energy and Transportation

California Passes Nation's First Zero-Emission, Electric Truck Goal

Cal Highway nixon CPR.jpg
Andrew Nixon/CapRadio
A freeway sign in Sacramento, Calif. on March 19, 2020.

Tens of thousands of electric trucks could be on California roads within a decade’s time now that state air officials approved news rules Thursday applauded by clean-air advocates.

Updated June 25, adding that the draft rules have been approved.

"We are showing the world that we can move goods, grow our economy and finally dump dirty diesel," said Jared Blumenfeld, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection.

The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, unanimously voted on a plan to require manufacturers to produce more electric trucks, which would put 100,000 zero-emission trucks on roads by 2030 and around produce 300,000 by 2035. The rule is the first of its kind in the country.

“Diesel vehicles are the workhorses of the economy, and we need them to be part of the solution to persistent pockets of dirty air in some of our most disadvantaged communities,” said CARB Chair Mary D. Nichols in a release. “Now is the time – the technology is here and so is the need for investment.”

The agency updated a draft plan on electric trucks in late April. This means manufacturers will have to create more zero-emission trucks — from full-size pick-up trucks to cement trucks to semi-trucks. The proposal is part of the state’s climate goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2045.

“This is putting us on a path to having 100% of trucks being zero-emission by the 2045 time frame where feasible,” said Tony Brazil in April. He’s the branch chief for CARB’s heavy-duty diesel implementation division

California Gov. Gavin Newsom applauded the plan that means by 2045 every new truck sold in California will be zero-emission.

“Even in the midst of a global pandemic, climate change is still an existential threat — both to our way of life and our children’s health,” he said in an email. “Communities and children of color are often forced to breathe our most polluted air, and today’s vote moves us closer toward a healthier future for all of our kids.”

The trucking industry had major questions about the proposal over how fast it could build trucks and how businesses will purchase them, especially with the pandemic and a potential recession.

The projections about the future electric truck fleet are in some cases nearly double a previous CARB proposal from 2019, where only about 8% of trucks would be required to go electric, said Paul Cort, staff attorney with the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice. Cort said the plan was not aggressive enough.

“The rule was fairly gentle and had a slow start; it exempted trucks like pickup trucks until 2027,” Cort said in April.

He says there could be 4,000 zero-emission trucks on California roads by 2024.

“Trucks produce the pollution for nearly half of California’s unhealthy smog problem, and nothing short of a complete transformation to zero-emissions trucks will be sufficient to protect the millions of people who live and breathe near ports, freeways, and warehouses,” he said in a release.

This regulation is a big deal for places like the Inland Empire, which gets anywhere between 20- 25,000 trucks running through the region each day, says Anthony Victoria of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.

“I think it's a step in the right direction,” he said. “But I think we have to continue to do more. I mean, I think the rule could be stronger.”

For people that live near highways and warehouses, the CARB vote is a big win.

"For me air pollution coming from goods movement is a constant reminder to why we have smoggy air," said Roxana Barrera, an organizer who lives near the BNSF rail yard in San Bernardino. "My son has had respiratory issues since he was born, he has an inhaler and has had to go to the hospital for breathing treatments when it gets bad. We can no longer allow them to place their profits above our welfare. Having zero emissions would help better our air quality and our planet.”

Environmental advocates also say the new standard could have public health benefits.

“[The] result will be that people who live near freeways or live in areas that are in the shadows of ports … won't have to be exposed to super toxic diesel pollution,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, which is one of the largest environmental groups in the state.

Phillips says she hopes CARB introduces plans to hold the world of trucking accountable to the proposed changes.

“You'll need supporting rules to make sure that certain kinds of companies are as they're shifting out of their trucks,” said Phillips.

But for the rule to succeed, Chris Shimoda, Vice President of Government Affairs for the California Trucking Association, said “there is a lot of work that needs to be done on infrastructure, incentives and other important issues. In the midst of a coming recession, having the state’s support to incentivize the purchase of these vehicles has never been more important.”

In April he told CapRadio that it also may be unrealistic for the trucking industry to go electric so quickly, given that it’s taken decades for passenger car sales to rise. The state has a goal of 5 million zero-emission cars on roads by 2030, and as of February, just over 700,000 had been sold since 2011.

“There are probably less than 100 commercial electric vehicles in existence today operating in smaller scale pilot and demonstration projects,” Shimoda said. “What we're really looking for is, I think, a small scale success rather than a large scale failure.”

He also says the industry is concerned there won’t be enough charging infrastructure and whether building the new system is realistic in a state facing less funding because of the pandemic.

“We are in month one of assessing what the true impacts to the economy over the longer term are going to be from the pandemic and with the initial timeline for the vehicles,” he said.

Clean air advocates are happy CARB voted in favor of the updated rule because they say transportation is the biggest cause of air pollution in the state.

“This [rule] is projected to save over 900 lives and avoid over almost $9 billion in health costs over the course of the program,” said Will Barrett, clean-air advocacy director for the American Lung Association in California.

Barrett says Californians can expect another big truck emissions rule to be released this week. It would set more stringent standards for diesel engines.

“What we're arguing for is that California needs to move to a 90% cleaner standard for heavy-duty trucks that are not electric,” he said.

The American Lung Association's latest ‘State of the Air’ report revealed that Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, Los Angeles and San Francisco have some of the worst particle pollution in the entire country. The particles that come from sources like trucks, cars and factories get stuck in lungs and can cause asthma attacks and even lung cancer.

Copyright 2020 CapRadio