New federal tailpipe rules would put stricter limits on Virginia’s heavy truck emissions

Trucker association voices concern about speed of electrification push

By: - June 1, 2023 12:02 am

Evening traffic on Interstate 95 through Richmond. (Wyatt Gordon)

As Virginia continues down the road of speeding up the transition from gas-powered passenger vehicles to electric ones, new rules proposed by the federal government could also accelerate electrification of the state’s heavy trucks.

This April, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed stricter tailpipe emissions limits for passenger vehicles as well as for heavy trucks. The new limits for passenger vehicles will have little impact in Virginia: As a result of 2021 legislation, the state follows stricter standards for light vehicles set by California, which will mandate that 100% of sales of new passenger cars be electric beginning in 2035.

But because the 2021 legislation only applies to vehicles weighing 14,000 pounds or less, Virginia must follow the federal emissions standards for heavy trucks, which if finalized will apply to trucks beginning with model year 2027. 

While the EPA would allow manufacturers to choose their own method of meeting the stricter emissions standards, the agency projects up to 50% of vocational vehicles — heavy trucks used for particular industries or occupations — in model year 2032 could use electric batteries and fuel cell technologies.

“By proposing the most ambitious pollution standards ever for cars and trucks, we are delivering on the Biden-Harris Administration’s promise to protect people and the planet, securing critical reductions in dangerous air and climate pollution and ensuring significant economic benefits like lower fuel and maintenance costs for families,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a statement.

But Virginia Trucking Association President and CEO Dale Bennett said his group has some concerns about the faster pace the new rules would set for the transition to electric vehicles. 

The trucking association expects that under the new rules, fleets will become 100% electric by 2055, given the roughly 30-year lifespan of a heavy truck. 

With the trucking association counting about 45,870 heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers in Virginia in 2021, Bennett said more rapid electrification of the fleet will require significant buildout of the electric grid.

He also voiced concerns about charge times, which can take about two hours to power a truck to travel about 200 miles, compared to about 15 minutes to fill up a truck with diesel to cover 1,200 miles; battery weight; and cost. While a new diesel truck can cost about $180,000, typical electric trucks go for $400,000, he said.

“We need to go at the speed of right, not at the speed of light,” said Bennett.

Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, however, said the stricter standards will improve Virginia’s air quality. He pointed to recent research from the Union of Concerned Scientists estimating exposures to particulate matter from tailpipe emissions, which has been estimated to be responsible for about 95% of the global public health impacts from air pollution.

“EPA’s proposed federal heavy duty vehicle emissions standard will help to clean Virginia’s air — improving our health and our environment,” Pollard said by email.

California has more stringent regulations for heavy trucks, but Virginia hasn’t adopted those, Pollard noted. And while he acknowledged truckers will see an increase in upfront costs for vehicles, he said they can be recouped in three to seven years through savings on gas and maintenance.  

If finalized, the rules will be implemented by heavy-truck manufacturers, including Volvo’s New River Valley plant in Dublin, Virginia, and its Mack Trucks facility just outside Roanoke.

Dawn Fenton, vice president of government relations and public affairs at Volvo Group North America, said the company supports the transition to zero-emission vehicles and has committed to 100% of its products being fossil free by 2040. Because the Dublin plant makes both electric and diesel heavy truck engines, the facility will be able to continue producing vehicles while adjusting to a faster transition, Fenton said. 

“We see that we’re moving toward a zero-emission vehicle future,” Fenton said. “Our biggest concern is by far the question about the availability of charging infrastructure to be able to enable fleets to be able to adopt them.” 

Fenton said “a lot” of Volvo’s current electric truck sales are happening in California, which has stricter heavy-truck emissions regulations and has also created incentives for charging infrastructure buildout and electric vehicle purchases. 

In Virginia, House Republicans this past session for the second time killed legislation from Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, to create a fund that would provide money for rural infrastructure development. The General Assembly has also repeatedly blocked proposals for state rebates for electric vehicle purchases in Virginia, although incentives are available from the federal level through the Inflation Reduction Act.

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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.