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EPA approves California phasing out diesel trucks, replacing them with electric vehicles

The Environmental Protection Agency formally approved California rules on Friday to phase out diesel-burning trucks, a move experts say will kick off the transition to electric trucks in several other key states.

California needed a waiver from the federal agency to enforce its clean truck rules, which have already been approved by state regulators, because they are significantly more ambitious than EPA requirements.

The move promises to dramatically improve air quality for Californians, as heavy-duty trucks make up nearly a third of the state’s nitrogen oxide emissions and more than a quarter of its fine particle pollution linked to health problems.

“Under the Clean Air Act, California has longstanding authority to address pollution from cars and trucks. Today’s announcement allows the state to take additional steps in reducing their transportation emissions through these new regulatory actions,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement.

Gov. Gavin Newsom lauded the state’s role as a leader for setting ambitious vehicle emission standards that will reverberate in markets around the country.

“Thanks to the Biden Administration we’re getting more zero-emission heavy duty trucks on the roads,” said Newsom in a statement. “We’re leading the charge to get dirty trucks and buses — the most polluting vehicles — off our streets, and other states and countries are lining up to follow our lead around the world.”

The EPA-issued waiver gives federal consent for California and 6 other states to begin implementing their rules to phase in zero-emissions trucks. Together they represent about 22% of the nation’s heavy-duty vehicle sales.

Because of California’s uniquely poor air quality, the federal Clean Air Act allows the the state to set more stringent vehicle emissions targets than the national standard with an EPA waiver. Other states can and have often chosen to follow California’s lead.

The rule under the Air Resources Board called Advanced Clean Trucks sets new sales requirements for truck manufacturers. Beginning in 2024, companies will have to sell increasing percentages of zero-emission trucks, buses and vans, eventually reaching a target of all-electric or hydrogen fuel-cell truck sales by 2045.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions by an estimated 307 million metric tons by 2050, the transition is expected to bring health benefits to disadvantaged communities that live near highways, rail yards and ports where trucks spew toxic diesel exhaust and smog-forming pollutants.

New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington and Vermont have agreed to adopt the sales mandate for clean trucks. It’s a slower transition to electric than California has set for passenger car manufacturers, which have to switch to selling zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

That’s despite significant lobbying from heavy-duty truck manufacturers, including Volvo and Daimler Truck, that have been pressing state and federal regulators to delay rules on the transition from diesel and to sell more zero-emissions trucks.

Another new California policy is still waiting on an EPA waiver. Called the Omnibus Regulation, it sets stricter pollution limits for heavy-duty vehicles and requires truck makers to cut emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. These rules are also more far-reaching than the Biden administration’s regulations.

“We’re really excited to see this rule being approved, even though we’re still waiting for the other components of the rules. The advanced clean truck standards being approved is a critical step not just for California but much of the nation,” said Rachel Patterson, transportation policy lead at Evergreen Action. “It’s not dramatic to say this rule going into effect is going to save lives.”

Under the Trump administration nearly five years ago, the EPA revoked California’s authority to seek a waiver to set stricter state standards, deepening a legal battle over climate change regulations.

Patricio Portillo, transportation analyst at the Natural Resource Defense Council, said the Biden administration is bringing some normalcy back to a process that had been politicized under the Trump administration. Yet the federal government is still playing catch up as states like California feel the compounding effects of air pollution and climate change and take steps to address it.

“There’s a lot of other work that has to happen, on infrastructure and incentives,” he said. “But this is the foundation. This guarantees the minimum supply of zero emission vehicles being produced, so you can’t kind of overstate how important this is and the EPA waiver is that critical last step for it to become a reality.”

Another proposed state regulation will require large companies to gradually convert their fleets of heavy-duty trucks to zero-emission by 2040. The Air Resources Board is expected to hold a final hearing and vote on the rule next month.