May 27, 2010

Heavy-duty truck emissions regulation is driving north to Canada—really?

by Heather Merry

Hope is here for North America-wide regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for heavy-duty trucking with a U.S. announcement Friday and a Canadian announcement the same day to mirror it.

On May 21, with major truck association and manufacturer leaders by his side, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about that day’s Presidential Memorandum, addressing “a transformation of our Nation’s fleet of cars and trucks” that the industry of alternative fuel and transportation technologies has been waiting to hear for a while. We couldn’t agree more. As Obama’s memorandum itself states, “medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses continue to be a major source of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas pollution.”

The whole announcement is full of promise that industry and environmental groups alike hope will bring real improvements to the transportation pollution problem in North America through regulation. After citing the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama states, “even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil, our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies.”

And after Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice made an announcement the same day that Canada will look to harmonize heavy-duty truck emissions regulations with the U.S., greatly assisting manufacturers and fleets operating in both jurisdictions, we have cause for cheer. Cheer, at least, that governments are addressing emissions from the heavy-duty sector and its current ugly 23% of North America’s GHG emissions from transportation. And according to the Conference Board of Canada, virtually all of the increase in GHG emissions from transportation has come from freight transport due mainly to corporations integrating their North American operations in the last two and a half decades and therefore using more large trucks carrying more freight over longer distances.

While it seems I cannot quote Obama enough today thanks to these nuggets of promise above, I question the severity of the regulations to come. Will they really dictate low GHG emissions standards bringing major reductions, or are the Globe and Mail and others’ predictions of aerodynamic hood clips and fancy tires correct? I can applaud the use of aerodynamics to improve GHG emissions where they are not already in use (which, incidentally, they should be), but is this baby step, the ONLY step our two advanced nations are going to take? I hope not. To make a difference, the regulation must effect a change to lower-carbon fuels, not just vehicle/fuel efficiency. A combination of incumbent fuel technologies and alternative lower-carbon fuel solutions can achieve the fastest carbon (GHG) reduction at the lowest cost using available technology.

I’m hopeful that both the U.S. and Canadian governments will make sizeable changes to emissions standards, but will await their actions before commenting. Details of the standards that will be imposed are not yet available, and I concede that mandating better vehicle or fuel efficiency is at least a start if we are to reduce GHG emissions by 17% by 2020 as both countries are targeting. Let’s just hope they are more aggressive and present truly lower GHG emissions standards, achievable now by switching to natural gas technologies already powering trucks in the market today such as Westport HD and Cummins Westport engines.

And Westport is looking forward, as surely all auto and truck manufacturers are, to a harmonized system of emissions regulations not only throughout the U.S., but across the northern border to Canada too. Operators need support and incentive to move on this, and having one standard to adhere to makes it that much easier.

Yes, hope is indeed here, but I guess we must wait until the fall, and then next year for the real numbers to gauge the environmental progress these two nations are actually going to make with this.

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