Money, health at center of fight over diesel rules

They have been overshadowed by the state budget free-fall and California’s greenhouse gas emissions law, but looming regulations to curb diesel soot from a million trucks and school buses are certain to have enormous public health and financial impacts here while serving as a national model.

The financial impact alone could be far greater than the planned multibillion-dollar market structure of the better-known greenhouse gas law.

The Air Resources Board, which enforces air-quality standards in California, is expected to approve the new on-road diesel rules on Dec. 11-12—two months later than originally scheduled, in part because analysts need to cull through voluminous data and review material from the diesel industry, fleet owners, environmentalists and others.

ARB puts the economic impact at roughly $4.4 billion to $5.4 billion, due mostly to the cost of upgrading vehicles with soot-capturing traps, which can cost $20,000 or more for older trucks, and the purchase over time of new engines and vehicles. Truckers and their allies, not surprisingly, believe their out-of-pocket costs could be far higher, and that the ARB has little concept of the rules’ economic stress.

But if the pocketbook impact is deep, the dollars associated with the potential health benefits are even greater.

Diesel soot results in perhaps 1,000 premature deaths annually in California, 320,000 cases of asthma-related illnesses, boosts lung-cancer cases, results in nearly 2 million lost workdays, requires some 2,400 hospital admissions, reduces atmospheric visibility by 10 percent to 75 percent and, second only to carbon dioxide, contributes to global warming. Cleansing the air of diesel soot saves lives and protecting the public’s health comes first, notes the ARB, which estimates that the savings in health care could be “tens of billions of dollars.” Last year, amid similar arguments, the ARB wrote rules governing off-road diesel vehicles.

In the case of school buses, which are covered by the newly proposed regulation, even the passengers are exposed to the health effects. “Moreover, self-pollution, (pollution from the vehicle itself) has been observed on every school bus tested in California, regardless of the age of the bus. The cumulative exhaust inhaled by the 40 or so kids on a self-polluting bus is comparable to, or in many cases larger than, the cumulative amount inhaled by all other people in the South Coast Air Basin,” said one ARB analysis.
For opponents of the proposed regulation, the problem is simple: They can’t afford it.

“What CARB (California Air Resources Board) is proposing to adopt is the nation’s most stringent emissions regulation that is likely to be the most costly and far reaching rule that business has yet to face,” said an analysis by Driving Toward a Cleaner California, a coalition that includes the diesel vehicle industry.

“Californians are struggling to make ends meet, and truckers, grocers and other small businesses are being hit by high diesel prices and the state’s economic downturn,” Robert Ramorino, president of the California Trucking Association said earlier in a written statement.

The proposed regulation would be phased in at the end of 2010 to limit soot, smog-producing chemicals and carbon emissions from trucks. It would set fleet-based limits on diesel soot, and would require retrofitting vehicles with traps, engine replacements and, ultimately, vehicle replacements. The fleet-based rules, which would ratchet up over a decade, would apply to state-registered vehicles, as well as those registered outside California that operate in the state, including international vehicles. Private vehicles less than 14,000 pounds in gross weight would be exempt.

Critics contend that the real costs of the rule are far higher, perhaps $8 billion to $10 billion when the costs of job loss and interrupted commerce are calculated, and they question whether technology is keeping pace with the regulation. In addition, government funding intended to help truckers get money to pay for retrofitting are miniscule and largely unobtainable, they say.

For example, a $1 billion pool of money in the voter-approved Proposition 1B contains some $350 million in grants for about 15,000 to 20,000 port-transportation trucks, while a similar amount of money is available for the roughly 400,000 vehicles of the general trucking industry.

“The general trucking industry gets left behind,” said Sean Edgar, executive director of the Clean Fleets Coalition, whose members include solid-waste haulers and recyclers. Another source of funds, called the Carl Moyer program, provides $140 million to $160 million annually, but that, too, is quickly exhausted, according to Edgar.

The diesel rules actually encompass two sets of regulations, commonly known as the “Statewide Truck and Bus Rule” and the “AB 32 Truck Efficiency Rule.” The rules are just one of several major regulation-writing projects that face the ARB this year. The others include approving the final plans for AB 32, the state’s 2006 law to limit climate-changing greenhouse gases, and the establishment of what is known as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

The fuel standard stems from the governor’s closely-watched 2007 executive order to establish comprehensive rules to limit fuel-linked greenhouse gases. In common with some other environmental rules that California has approved in the past few years, the LCFS has the potential, experts say, to be far more significant over time than AB 32, which has captured national attention.

“It is very complicated. There are so many analyses that are required to account for the lifecycle of emissions from any given fuel. If you are talking about biofuel, you’re not just looking at the emissions from the fuel tank, but at where the crop is grown and harvested, and follow it until it is burned. Nobody in the world has done that kind of analysis, at least in a regulatory proceeding,” said Bill Magavern of the Sierra Club.

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