California regulators: Full steam ahead on trucking pollution programs

California air quality regulators continue to enforce trucking-related pollution programs during the coronavirus outbreak, but have postponed public hearings on new rulemaking as industry organizations request delays in light of the pandemic.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) programs will “continue in effect with current deadlines unchanged,” CARB spokesperson Karen Caesar told FreightWaves in an email.  As always, staff will be available “to work with individual parties on specific issues” and on a case-by-case basis, Caesar said.

Specifically, enforcement of a law that took effect in January requiring heavy-duty trucks to be compliant with California’s Truck and Bus rule prior to vehicle registration will not be suspended as a result of the pandemic, Caesar said.

In addition to existing programs, the agency is moving forward with rulemaking for two new initiatives — the Omnibus Low-NOx and Advanced Clean Truck rulemaking.

The Advanced Clean Truck rule would require manufacturers to sell a certain percentage of nonpolluting trucks in the state. The Omnibus Low-NOx program is intended to create a stricter nitrogen oxide-emissions rule for heavy trucks.

Both programs are controversial in the trucking industry, with many companies arguing the programs would impose undue cost burdens on businesses and drivers alike. 

Last week, the Western States Trucking Association (WSTA) joined members of a construction industry group in writing a letter to CARB asking for delayed rulemaking on the state’s next-generation programs due to limited opportunities available for public input during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We believe the ‘public’ will be limited in its participation in the rulemaking processes due to COVID-19,” Joe Rajkovacz, WSTA’s government affairs director told FreightWaves.

CARB appears to share some of those concerns. A hearing on the Advanced Clean Truck rule has been delayed by one month and will now take place during CARB’s June board meeting, according to Caesar. A low-NOx hearing scheduled for June, will be postponed, with the exact date to be determined, she said. 

Other programs continue as scheduled.

Providing extensions or exclusions to the Truck & Bus rule that are not already included in the regulation would put compliant vehicle owners at a disadvantage, according to Caesar, and “would only benefit those who did not comply on time.”

She said CARB is not aware of any delays or issues associated with shipping products with compliant vehicles and questioned “what additional extensions or exclusions would achieve.”

A three-day pass is available in certain situations, Caesar noted. The temporary permit allows a fleet owner to operate one vehicle per year that does not meet the emission reduction requirements of the Truck and Bus regulation.

As of Tuesday morning, according to Rajkovacz, CARB had not responded to the association’s letter expressing concerns about new rulemaking. Informed by FreightWaves of the clean truck and low-NOx hearing delays, he said “that takes my concerns off the table.”

WSTA was not saying “stop doing this stuff,” Rajkovacz explained. Instead, his group questioned CARB’s process — that they they didn’t seem to think the pandemic “should cause a pause whatsoever.”

Other trucking groups, however, appeared to leverage the outbreak as a tool to fight broader implementation of the pollution mandates currently in development.

In a March 23 letter obtained by FreightWaves, Jed Mandel, president of the Truck & Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA), called on CARB to “take account of the incredibly adverse impacts on manufacturers that have occurred, and that continue to evolve, as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis.”

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on engine and vehicle manufacturers “is still unfolding, but is severe,” Mandel wrote, and the outbreak “must result in CARB delaying and/or significantly modifying its current plans for both the Omnibus Low-NOx and ACT rulemakings.”

Mandel could not immediately be reached for comment.

As industry groups call on regulators to slow down, environmental groups are waging their own campaign, asking California public officials to stay the course on air quality regulations.

In a March 31 letter obtained by FreightWaves, a coalition of environmental groups wrote Gov. Gavin Newsom and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon that “unfortunately, some of the state’s biggest polluters are using this public health emergency as an excuse to weaken public health protections.”

“Seven of the 10 smoggiest cities in the United States are in California, and too many of our most vulnerable communities bear the greatest burdens when the air is unhealthy to breathe,” the letter stated.