A good candidate for executive action from the Obama administration

By now everyone who wants to know does know that President Obama has promised “executive actions” on climate change if Congress continues to evade the problem. That has naturally re-energized discussion on what he can do without legislation — quite a bit, as it happens, of which the most talked-about options include CO2 standards for new and existing power plants, appliance efficiency standards, and regulating methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations.

Transportation efficiency standards need to be part of that mix, and a good place to look right now is toward heavy-duty vehicles—trucks and buses. The landmark passenger vehicle CAFE standards finalized in 2010 and 2012 have received a lot of well-deserved attention, and they are the signature climate policy of the administration so far. Less well known are the GHG and fuel efficiency standards for HDVs adopted in 2011, which will apply to new vehicles sold in model years 2014–18. The label “historic” is overused, but in this case it’s literally true: this will be the first such regulation in effect anywhere in the world. (Japan passed a similar rule in 2005, but it won’t go into effect until 2015.) Overall these efficiency standards will produce fuel consumption reductions ranging from 6% to 23%, keep 250 million metric tonnes of GHGs out of the atmosphere and save 500 million barrels of oil over the lifetime of those vehicles produced within the program’s first five years, for net social benefits of $49 billion (all estimates are EPA’s).

But that was a first pass, and inevitably some potential gains got left on the table. The chart and table below illustrate both the reduction in CO2e emissions / fuel consumption that the 2014–2018 HDV standards will produce, and the further reductions that more stringent but still technically and economically viable standards could capture.

Savings in 2030 from US HDV CO2 Standards
  GHG savings
Fuel savings
Phase 1 (comp. to reference) 70 0.36
Phase 2, Ph. 1 rates (comp. to Ph. 1) 49 0.25
Phase 2, 3.5%/yr reduction (comp. to Ph. 1) 71 0.36

Source: ICCT Roadmap model

A recent National Academy of Sciences study of several types of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles estimated that fuel-consumption reductions ranging from 32% to 51% were achievable in the 2015–2020 time frame. That translates into an additional 70 mmt of CO2e emissions and .36 million barrels of oil, based on our modeling. Many of the vehicle design changes needed to capture those gains are technically straightforward—improvements in aerodynamics and tire rolling resistance for trailers, for example, a crucial aspect of HDV efficiency that the 2014–2018 regulation does not address at all. (A forthcoming white paper from ICCT’s heavy-duty vehicle program team will summarize the issues and options for bringing trailer standards into the regulation.)

And the timing is good, because a second phase of HDV regulation is due. The EPA and NHTSA will probably give Notice of Intent to Regulate in early 2014. That will present an opportunity for aggressive yet reasonable increases in the stringency of efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. HDVs account for 6% of total US GHG emissions—not as juicy a target as the one-third that come from power plants, but significant enough to merit a real focus in the administration’s climate policy during this term.