As the nation focuses on greenhouse gas regulations set into motion by landmark legislation in 2006, state regulators are set to pass a less-publicized, wide-reaching rule on emissions from diesel busses and trucks that business groups say could cost billions of dollars to implement.
Environmentalists hailed the state Air Resources Board after its staff released a draft of the new regulations earlier this year–the first such rules in the nation.
But following a public hearing last Friday, the regulations were modified in the wake of howls of protest from business groups–a move that immediately kindled environmentalists' suspicions.
As drafted, the rule would have required on-road diesel fleets to meet 2007 emission standards by 2010, either through the use of new engines or through the use of mechanical traps fitted to the engines. Ultimately, the ARB's overall goal is to cut diesel emissions 85 percent below the 2000 level by 2020.
A critical piece of the draft regulation required some truckers' engines to be replaced twice in nine years in order to comply with the rule, but that language has been eliminated from the draft regulation, the ARB said.
"It did require replacing two engines in a nine-year span, but the ‘two in nine' has been eliminated. There will not be any need to replace an engine twice in nine years. The new draft regulation will have different language," said ARB spokeswoman Karen Cesar.
"We have been concerned that industry pressure would prompt a relaxation of the proposed standards," said the Sierra Club's Bill Magavern, who called the new diesel rules, "the most important clean-air measure that the government of California will take up this year."
The board is scheduled to adopt the regulation in October.
It is unclear just how many trucks would be affected by the new rule.
The ARB says there are more than 1.5 million on-road diesel vehicles that would be affected by the regulation.
Opponents, however, say the impact would be greater. The regulation would pertain not only to the 500,000 or so diesel trucks registered in California, but to the estimated 1.8 million trucks registered outside the state that do business in California, said Julie Sauls, a spokeswoman for the California Trucking Association.
Sauls said she did not know how many trucks on the road would need new engines, or be fitted with particulate-matter traps. But she said the cost of such an upgrade ranges from $15,000 to $30,000 per truck.
State regulators estimate the total impact of the diesel regulations at $4 billion, but critics say the price tag could be twice that, or more. The particulate-matter traps may not be suitable for some vehicles, critics note, requiring those owners to get new engines. New trucks cost about $150,000 each.
The trucking association supported a 2007 bill by Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, that would have required any pre-1994 diesel engine to be taken off the road. But, they say the proposed ARB regulations go too far.
"We're willing to be good stewards and do our part. But at some point you're going to place so much burden on the California companies," Sauls said.
The transporation bond passed by state voters in 2006 provides some money to help with the diesel clean-up. In all, Proposition 1B set aside about $1 billion to clean up trucks and busses. But that money won't go far enough, says Sauls. Much of that money has been sought by ports nd other large industrial hubs with clean-up problems of their own.
"There's about $1 billion in Prop 1B money, but trucks are $150,000 each," she said. "If the ARB is setting regulations that are going to deny these trucks a useful life, you run into all sorts of problems. You start getting into issues of public taking of private property," she said.
Magavern says the environmental dangers posed by diesel emissions far outweigh the costs that have caused truckers and other business leaders to balk. "Diesel exhaust is a cause of both ozone smog that scars our lungs and particulate matter, which causes heart and lung disease and premature death," he said.
Some 111.5 tons of diesel soot is spewed into the air each day in California, according to the ARB. The proposed regulation would eliminate about a third of that pollution, or about 34.6 tons from big-rig trucks. On-road diesel vehicles, mainly big trucks and buses, account for about 40 percent of the soot in the air, and about half of the nitrogen oxide, or NOx, which is a key component of smog.
One concern industry leaders and environmentalists share is how the new regulations will be enforced. In a March 10 letter sent to CARB officials, a coalition of environmentalists raised concerns about enforcement.
"A truly successful regulation requires further definition of the enforcement plans and mechanisms to ensure the rule is being followed," the letter states.
CARB says details on enforcement are still being worked out, but that local law enforcement may be asked to play a role in ensuring trucks are abiding by the new clean-air standards.
Meanwhile, the fight over the final wording of the new rule continues to mount. The trucking association has joined with the state's agriculture interests and state Chamber of Commerce to fight the new regulations. A new draft of the regulation is expected to be released within a few days. The drafting and redrafting of regulations is customary at the ARB, which holds public hearings to get advice for the regulation, then rewrites the rule-sometimes many times-based on the information it has gleaned.
"It's usually a one- to two-year period," said Kathryn Murray of the Environmental Defense Fund, which supports the proposed regulation. "They refine, refine and refine. These rules typically go through a shaping and reshaping. The ARB is one of those agencies with a lot of public involvement and they actually do listen."
Cesar noted that the ARB has developed an array of regulations over the years targeting diesel emissions, including the idling of trucks in ports, the shutdown of docked ships' auxiliary diesel engines, cleaner fuels for vessels, off-road diesel restrictions and harbor-craft cleanup, among others.
"My point is that we are not singling out a particular sector for regulation. We have to regulate diesel engines in California because we have unique and very challenging air quality problems, and this is how we're doing it," Cesar said.