White House to Toughen Fuel Standards for Heavy-Duty Vehicles

The President continues his stealth green initiative—tightening fuel economy standards for cars and trucks

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Gas-guzzling heavy-duty trucks will get a little more efficient under proposed White House rules

When it comes to environmental initiatives, President Obama’s controversial efforts to impose some form of greenhouse gas regulation on America’s power plants have gotten most of the attention. There’s good reason for that—the utility sector is the single biggest carbon emitter in the U.S., and the future of coal power in particular could decide the climate future of the U.S. But establishing climate regulations for electricity production has been a long, politically fraught process, one that is far from finished.

Under the radar, however, President Obama has scored major successes reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the second-biggest source after power: transportation. In 2011, the Obama Administration established the first fuel standards for medium and heavy vehicles, rules that called for a 20% reduction in heavy-vehicle emissions by 2018—though only for truck models 2014 to 2018. That made a difference; though heavy-duty vehicles like garbage trucks and school buses represent just 4% of registered vehicles on the road, they accounted for about a quarter of the transportation sector’s carbon footprint. The new regulations—which required auto manufacturers to increase fuel economy levels from about 6 mpg to 8 mpg on average—saved an estimated 530 million barrels of oil and reduced emissions by approximately 270 million metric tons over the lifetime of the rules.

Now the White House is announcing new, tougher fuel economy rules for heavy-duty vehicles, targeted to model years after 2018. While the specifics of the rules aren’t clear, Obama will direct the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department to make those determinations and finalize the regulations by March 2016. “Strong heavy truck efficiency standards will not only cut carbon pollution that fuels climate change, but also save consumers money every time they go to a store and save truckers money at the pump,” said Frances Beinecke, the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “This is a win-win for the environment and the economy.”

Obama announced the details of the planned regulations at a speech later this morning at a Maryland Safeway distribution center, where officials at the grocery chain have been working with the EPA to invest in trucks that get better mileage, in part through improved aerodynamics and larger capacity trailers. “Today… We take another big step to grow our economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said Obama.

Siting the speech at Safeway is a sign of how much the auto industry has been cooperating with the White House on fuel economy over the last several years—quite in contrast to much of the power industry, which has been stubbornly fighting greenhouse gas regulations. Already the White House has been able to tighten fuel economy standards significantly on standard-sized cars and light trucks: corporate fleets will need to get an average of 54.5 mpg by model year 2025, nearly doubling what will be required at the end of 2016. When President Obama leaves office at the end of 2016, America’s once-wasteful auto industry will be on the path to significantly better efficiency, cutting oil imports and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It won’t receive the attention that the battle over power-plant regulations gets, but it will be a lasting green legacy of the President’s time in office.