California poised to ban diesel truck sales in 2036: ‘This is a first-of-its-kind requirement’

California’s leading air quality regulator will soon vote on whether to ban the sale of new diesel big rigs by 2036 and switch all trucks in the state to zero-emission by 2042, unprecedented rules that would transform California’s trucking industry.

Trucking companies and local governments warn the California Air Resources Board that the mandates would be unachievable as environmental justice advocates laud the ambitious regulation they helped shape. After a final public hearing on Thursday, a vote is expected Friday.

“This is a first-of-its-kind requirement that will ensure industry has the certainty as to where California is going, which is zero,” said Sydney Vergis, CARB chief of transportation pollution. “It will help ensure that private infrastructure providers have certainty that should they decide to invest in California, there will be a market for them.”

By mandating the purchase of electric or hydrogen-powered trucks over time, the proposal aims to drastically reduce greenhouse gas pollution and harmful diesel exhaust generated by the 1.8 million medium- and heavy-duty trucks on California roadways.

The Advanced Clean Fleets rule builds on a 2020 rule to mandate electric truck production, and is considered a linchpin in California’s efforts to combat climate change by improving air quality and transitioning to a carbon neutral economy powered with clean energy by 2045.

Adding millions of pollution-free trucks to the road over the next decades would also improve public health, proponents argue. But industry critics say many zero-emission trucks rely on new and expensive technology, not to mention a high-capacity charging network that doesn’t yet exist.

Shifting gears to zero

Despite making up just 7% of the vehicles on California roads, big rigs are the single largest source of vehicle air pollution. Freight trucks moved 8.3 million tons of goods in 2022 worth $1.2 billion, Department of Transportation data show, in an industry that could reach $7 billion in revenue by 2025.

The engines of those trucks emit about 70% of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and 80% of carcinogenic diesel soot, according to the air board. Much of that industrial pollution is felt most acutely in communities that live closest to ports and warehouses, including the southern Central Valley, Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire.

In a bold move that leaves no room for combustion engine truck sales just over a decade from now, CARB’s new rule would forbid truck manufacturers from selling any non-zero emission vehicle starting in 2036.

The rule would first kick in for drayage trucks, which move cargo between ports and warehouses up and down the state. Existing diesel vehicles can operate for several more years, but any new vehicles must be zero emission beginning 2024 and all must be converted to electric by 2035.

A requirement to switch existing trucks to zero emissions by 2042 would also apply to groups of 50 or more owned and operated by companies with more than $50 million in annual revenue, called “high-priority fleets,” as well as federally-owned trucks.

That includes both heavy duty big rigs weighing 8,500 pounds or more as well as lighter vehicles that include package delivery vans operated by the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and Amazon.

Requirements for public agencies such as fire departments and water agencies would also approach rapidly. Truck-owning agencies must make half of their truck purchases zero emission by 2024, ramping up to 100% by 2027, but emergency vehicles are exempt.

Air board officials expect the rule could put some 510,000 zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2035, reaching 1.7 million in 2050. CARB estimates the change would generate $26.5 billion in health benefits, from reduced rates of asthma attacks and emergency room visits for example, and $48 billion in savings for truck owners on lower operation and maintenance costs.

Some exemptions apply if entities can show a lack of available models. The agency will track implementation by requiring fleet owners to register trucks in an online system.

‘Impossible’ to comply?

Both trucking companies and local governments have emerged as key critics of the regulation.

They argue timelines are difficult to meet given a limited availability of zero-emission trucks and a dearth of adequate charging infrastructure. Air board leaders have said they expect private and public investment in charging infrastructure to grow over time.

Members of the trucking industry say the regulation could create serious problems in California’s already strained supply chain. Increased prices and less availability of certain commodities are likely ahead, said Chris Shimoda, senior vice president of the California Trucking Association.

“Nobody sees a path for getting this conversion done at the scale it needs to happen,” Shimoda said. “When you inject a lack of infrastructure, drivers who are spending 2-4 hours every day charging their trucks and a range for battery electric trucks that’s significantly lower than diesel counterparts, you’re going to see some negative effects. That’s almost inevitable.”

The industry needs high-capacity charging, which Shimoda said are 10 times the size of an electric passenger car charger. Infrastructure on that scale is going to put significant demand on the grid, which is already showing strain as the state shifts to wind and solar-powered electricity.

Smaller public agencies are also concerned about their ability to meet requirements. In a letter to the board, the League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties and California Special Districts Association said the rule’s timelines “do not consider existing local agency budget constraints and funding methods for capital projects.”

The letter asked the Air Board for a delay in implementation by 4 years unless the state develops a grant program for local governments, exemption expansion for emergency-related vehicles and a list of available carbon-free vehicles from manufacturers.

“The timeline is simply impossible. What it’s going to result in is a lot of paperwork from thousands of agencies seeking exemptions for everything,” said Kyle Packahm, public affairs director for the Special Districts Association. “The agencies who can least afford it, with the smallest tax base, are going to be the ones most burdened by the regulation.”

Advocates celebrate

Advocates pushing for aggressive measures to combat greenhouse gas pollution causing climate change and relieve communities most burdened by air pollution are celebrating the proposal’s potential to clean the air they breathe in California.

A coalition of activists fighting against local industrial pollution played a key role in moving the sales mandate up from 2040 to 2036. For a key air board hearing in October, dozens came by caravan for three days, driving from Long Beach and the Inland Empire to link up with activists in Oxnard, Fresno and West Oakland.

In Sacramento at the hearing, mostly low-income Black and Latino activists shared their stories of high asthma rates, headaches, eye and skin allergies, nose bleed and breathing problems. Many of their neighborhoods are close to warehouses, major ports and trucking highways.

“These corridors, they exist in all of our areas and they’re disproportionately in communities like ours,” said Andrea Vidaurre, People’s Collective for Environmental Justice. “It looks a little different everywhere but we’re all connected by the same thing... and we were able to win the 2036 sales mandate.”

The coalition was not successful in its push to regulate smaller trucking fleets that own less than 50 vehicles, which emit the same pollutants as larger companies.

Meeting state targets to decarbonize transportation will require more work, say experts, but carbon-free trucking can improve the health of Californians for generations to come.

“The significance of the 100% (zero-emission) sales requirement cannot be overstated. It makes California the undisputed global leader in zero-emission truck sales,” said Sasan Saadat, senior policy analyst at Earthjustice, an advocacy group. “This rule is evidence of CARB’s boldness.”

The California Air Resources Board public hearing begins at 9 a.m.. at 1001 I Street in Sacramento, or participate remotely.