In a worldwide first, California phases out diesel trucks

A fleet of electric big rigs and other trucks is lined up at an event in Bakersfield on Feb. 23, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

In a move that will transform California’s economy and end diesel’s decades-long dominance in goods movement, the Air Resources Board today unanimously approved an ambitious, contentious mandate to shift big rigs and other trucks to zero-emissions. 

California’s newest effort to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles is arguably one of the most meaningful steps the state has ever taken to clean up its severe smog and toxic diesel exhaust, reduce greenhouse gases and wean itself off fossil fuels.

The mandate is the first in the world to ban new diesel trucks and require a switch to zero-emission big rigs, garbage trucks, delivery trucks and other medium and heavy-duty vehicles.

The rules will dramatically change the commercial trucks that are driven on California’s roads, affecting about 1.8 million trucks, including ones operated by the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS and Amazon. 

“Ten years from now, when we look back to this day…we can say that California has changed the world,” said air board member Gideon Kracov, who is an environmental lawyer based in Los Angeles. “We can say that California did this right.”

Starting in 2036, no new fossil-fueled medium-duty and heavy-duty trucks will be sold in the state. Large trucking companies also must convert to electric or hydrogen models by 2042.

The board decided to review progress and obstacles in meeting the deadlines two and a half years from now.

Diesel-powered engines, known for their high energy efficiency and ability to carry heavy loads long distances, have dominated the nation’s goods movement since the 1950s. But the noxious fumes spewed from these trucks have for decades afflicted communities near ports, railways, freeways and warehouses. Diesel exhaust is linked to cancer and contains fine particles that can lodge in lungs, triggering heart attacks and other respiratory problems.

The move comes 25 years after California declared diesel exhaust a dangerous, toxic contaminant because it contains more than 40 chemicals linked to cancer. While diesel engines have been getting cleaner for decades under California’s earlier rules, they are still a major source of air pollution and greenhouse gases.

Electric delivery trucks are displayed at a convoy in Bakersfield. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

During a seven-hour board hearing on Thursday, truckers, local government leaders and fleet operators vehemently opposed the new timelines.

A top executive of the trucking industry in an interview with CalMatters predicted economic chaos and dysfunction and said the mandate is likely to “fail pretty spectacularly.” Local officials from city and county governments, which manage fleets of garbage trucks and other vehicles, told the board that its deadlines are “impossible” to meet. 

Jim Verburg of the Western States Petroleum Association, representing oil companies that produce diesel fuel and gasoline, told the board that the measure will hinder the state’s move towards zero-emission vehicles if many businesses can’t comply and are driven out of the state. 

“We do not want to see this regulation compromise the delivery of essential goods and services to Californians or compromise the state’s economy,” he said.

Trucking companies say electric models are more than twice the cost of a diesel truck, take hours to charge, can’t travel the range that many companies need to transport cargo and lack a sufficient statewide network of charging stations.

The new rules offer some exemptions if there is a lack of available models by the deadlines. As more electric trucks hit the market, air board staff project that the costs of new trucks and other drawbacks will ease over time.

While the upfront costs are very high to buy an electric truck, the lower maintenance and operational costs are expected to save fleet operators money over time. The air board calculated that operating and managing fleets is expected to result in $48 billion in economic savings.

In 2035, buying and operating an electric semi-truck over its lifespan could range between $765,000 and $1.1 million compared to a gas or diesel truck’s $919,000 to $1.2 million, according to air board calculations. (These totals exclude state and federal subsidies that some companies could receive when they buy zero-emission vehicles.)

Some expensive electric big rigs have already hit the market. PepsiCo last month received delivery of 21 Tesla all-electric trucks at its Sacramento bottling plant. Most were paid for by the local air quality district with $4.5 million in grants. The cost of a Tesla semi is around $250,000, twice the cost of a diesel truck. PepsiCo has ordered 100.

A fleet of new Tesla all-electric semis arrived at PepsiCo Beverages North America’s Sacramento facility in April, 2023. The trucks were paid for by the local air quality district. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

During about three hours of discussion today, several board members quizzed the staff about the industry’s concerns, particularly the challenge of scaling up California’s charging networks to support all-electric trucks. Air board staff said there would be several opportunities to revisit the feasibility of the rule as it’s implemented. The board voted to review the status of charging infrastructure and zero-emission truck availability by the end of 2025.

Still, opponents in industry said the adjustments didn’t accommodate any of their substantial concerns. 

Under the new rules approved today:

  • By 2036, truck manufacturers will only be allowed to sell zero-emission models of heavy-duty and medium-duty trucks.
  • Large trucking companies in California must convert their fleets to electric models. Timelines vary based on the type of truck, but companies will have to buy more over time until all trucks are zero-emissions by 2042. 
  • Drayage trucks, which carry cargo to and from the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, have one of the strictest timelines: All must be converted to electric models by 2035 and new sales beginning in 2024 must be zero emissions. 
  • The gradual conversion to zero emission models only applies to fleets that are owned or operated by companies with 50 or more trucks or $50 million or more in annual revenue, and federal agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service. Included are trucks weighing 8,500 lbs or more and delivery van vehicles.
  • Emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire trucks are exempted.

The mandate is considered one of the powerful air board’s most controversial acts in recent years, even more so than the newly enacted 2035 ban on new sales of gas-powered cars. It builds on a previous state clean trucks regulation, enacted in 2020, that mandated the number of zero-emission trucks that manufacturers must sell from 2024 through 2035. 

The Biden administration is also tackling emissions from vehicles. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new stringent greenhouse gas standards on cars nationwide.

Environmentalists tried but failed to persuade the air board to expand the rule to smaller fleets with fewer than 50 trucks. Instead, the board expects to propose a separate rule for smaller companies.

Environmental justice groups and many members of the public told the board at Thursday’s hearing that diesel fumes affect the health and quality of life of people in heavily polluted communities. Many spoke about the health problems they face.

“Their bodies have been the filters for the poison that these trucks spew — and that’s the reality for all the workers in this industry and the communities that live next to it,” said Andrea Vidaurre, a policy analyst at the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice.

Air board member Bill Quirk, 77, of Union City, a former state assemblymember appointed to the board in January by Gov. Gavin Newsom, shared the problems he’s faced from breathing air pollution. 

“Toxic air is a problem for everyone. It’s particularly been a problem for me,” he said.

“I developed asthma and eventually chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. My lungs have been ravaged…so I can’t tell you how important this (phaseout of diesels) is.” 

Diesel exhaust is particularly severe in communities near the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, the Inland Empire cities near warehouses and towns near freeways throughout the state.

Air board staff project the mandate will save the state $26 billion in health impacts over the lifespan of the rule.

The air board on Thursday also unanimously approved a separate measure that phases out diesel-powered locomotive engines. Under those new rules, railroads in California must stop using engines that are more than 23 years old by 2030.

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