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Trucking Emissions

Maximum Overdrive: The Threat of Commercial Trucking Emissions

The construction of the Interstate Highway System, which began in 1956, ushered the United States into an era of unchecked automobile expansion. Products and goods once transported via railway were now able to be moved from place to place by semi-truck trailers. This revolution in transportation methods allowed industries to exert far greater control over the dissemination of their products. People living in towns far from traditional transportation hubs were now connected by the highway system, and companies were able to distribute a greater variety of products to different locales. As the cost of transporting these goods shrunk, the amount of commercial transportation naturally increased, and today it is estimated that over 15.5 million commercial trucks are currently operating on U.S. roadways.

Today, with the world finally coming to terms with the threat of global climate change, people are searching for ways to limit the emission of greenhouse gases. The overwhelming majority of these emissions are produced by automobiles and their internal combustion engines. Simply put, the burning of gasoline and the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is threatening the environment on an unimaginable scale. As regulations begin to take effect to curb automobile emissions, semi-trucks roll onward, burning fuel at unprecedented levels. The number of trucks used in commercial transportation (both single unit and tractor trailer combination) rose 37 % between 1980 and 2002, increasing from 5.8 million to 7.9 million. In a world increasingly concerned about fuel consumption, the trucking industry accounts for 12.8% of all the fuel purchased in the U.S.

The problem, however, is not that trucks are transporting goods; it is that they are doing so in an extremely inefficient fashion. While automobile companies are increasingly focused on fuel efficiency, the average semi-truck trailer traversing American roadways today gets a meager 6 miles to the gallon. Consider that number, 6 miles per gallon, for a moment. In a country like the United States, where 80 % of communities receive their goods exclusively by truck, this is simply unacceptable. When combined with the recent rise in fuel costs, which leads directly to a rise in the cost of goods shipped by truck, our reliance on the trucking industry is putting a strain on both the economy and the environment.

Big rig semi-truck trailers are by far the leading contributor to U.S. emission levels. Measured in emissions per ton-mile, domestic freight movement has become increasingly CO2 intensive since 1990, in contrast to passenger sources, which have produced fewer CO2 emissions per passenger mile. This means that the trucking industry is consuming more fuel than any other, while simultaneously burning that fuel with the least efficiency. While regulations targeting automobile emissions are beginning to take effect, their benefits are being canceled out by the increase in semi-truck transportation. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) recently provided the Bush administration with a legal basis to allow millions of trucks to enter the U.S. from Mexico to deliver goods. These trucks are not required by law to conform to U.S. emissions standards, effectively counteracting any emissions reductions influenced by new regulations. In fact, the NAFTA/Mexican Truck Emissions Overview conducted in late 2004 revealed that “66% of the Mexican truck fleet is 1993 model year and older (1993 was when the diesel engine fleet was close to 100% electronic conversion, which means that engines built in 1993 and later typically use electronic fuel injection and computer controls to reduce emissions, improve performance and fuel economy).” Even more alarming is the overview’s assessment that “25% of the Mexican truck fleet is pre 1980 model year, running on engines which emit very high levels of Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Particulate Matter (PM) emissions on average.” These figures clearly suggest that our country is literally curbing emissions with one hand and increasing them with another, while the planet continues to suffer the consequences of global climate change.

While the outlook is admittedly bleak, there has been an increased awareness on the part of the federal government in regards to trucking emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has adopted strict new emission standards for on-road heavy-duty vehicles that took effect beginning in 2007. Under these new standards, both Nitrogen Oxide and Particulate Matter emissions must be ten times lower than 2004 levels, and the 2007 standards represent a 25-fold reduction compared to emission standards in the early 1990’s. The ATA (American Trucking Association) has even implemented the ‘Green Truck’ program, which is a voluntary avenue for truckers to learn about emissions standards, retrofit their equipment for increased efficiency, and explore alternative fueling options. However, one pressing question remains: are these efforts enough?

Consider that the emission standard improvements described above apply only to new vehicles in the year of their manufacture. There are currently no emission standards that apply to in-use vehicles, other than some state regulations on exhaust smoke opacity. Previously manufactured semi-trucks pose the greatest concern because they rely on outdated technology and are even less fuel-efficient than their modern counterparts. Astoundingly, older trucks produced during the 80’s and 90’s get only 4 miles to the gallon, while burning diesel fuel that pollutes the atmosphere in greater concentrations than regular gasoline. For an industry that averages 250 miles per trucking trip, 4 miles of transport for every gallon burned is dangerously irresponsible.

Other trucking industry practices also add to the air pollution epidemic, particularly the fact that drivers are encouraged by trucking companies to leave their rigs idling overnight for heating or cooling purposes. Drivers consider their trucks to be their homes during extended long-haul trips, and idling allows them to maintain a comfortable environment when not driving. Despite increased efforts to reduce idling times and their unnecessary emissions the habit has become engrained in trucking culture and change has been slow in coming. Although the trucking industry is vital to the national economy, a stubborn refusal to adapt technologically has left it trailing far behind other producers of harmful emissions when it comes to addressing global climate change. Today it is clear that trucking is one of the leading contributors to our current environmental crisis. Industry-wide reforms must be undertaken immediately to reduce trucking emissions across the nation.

Sources: All statistics provided by the U.S. government’s Guide to Foreign Trade Statistics, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board and the Energy Information Administration.





Written By: Jonathan Zaun

Initiated & Edited by Thomas Thirion

On Behalf Of: Green Peace Corps

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