In the background at Safeway was a truck weighing 80,000 pounds. The grocery chain was picked as the venue because the company has made considerable progress in making its truck fleet more efficient. Obama said:
"The goal we are setting is ambitious. But these are areas where ambition has worked out really well for us so far.Quite true. But, as John Miller of the Energy Collective has written, focusing exclusively on trucks without a fresh look at returning some freight to rail transportation is too timid.
"Every time someone says you can't grow the economy while bringing down pollution, it turns out they've been wrong. Anybody who says we can't compete when it comes to clean energy technologies—like solar and wind—they've had to eat those words."
More on that below the fold.
Early in his State of the Union address last month, Obama took note that today in America, "An autoworker fine-tuned some of the best, most fuel-efficient cars in the world, and did his part to help America wean itself off foreign oil."
In fact, emissions from passenger vehicles in the United States are falling, but only four of the top 10 most fuel-efficient commercially available cars in the world are made by U.S. manufacturers. The improvements being made in the U.S.-made fleet come as a result of the standard mandated by Obama in 2010 that the average gas mileage for passenger vehicles must reach an unadjusted fuel-economy rating of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The way testing is done, however, that impressive doubling of the old standard amounts to an EPA window-sticker rating of just 36 mpg.
Peter Lehner at the Natural Resources Defense Council writes that by 2030, the passenger vehicle standard is slated to save consumers $1.7 trillion in fuel costs and cut carbon pollution by 580 million metric tons, equal to emissions from 140 coal-fired power plants.
Currently, however, emissions from heavy- and medium-duty trucks are on the rise. Although they make up only four percent of vehicles on the road, they gobble up 20 percent of the fuel consumed and emit 20 percent of the carbon pollution. The 18-wheelers that make up the bulk of these trucks move freight about 1.33 trillion miles each year.
The first round of efficiency standards for heavy trucks, set by the Obama administration in 2011 for the 2014-2018 model years, are estimated to save truckers $50 billion a year in fuel costs, eliminate carbon pollution by more than 50 million metric tons a year and save more than 140 million barrels of oil a year.
The president called for the higher truck-efficiency standard to be issued by March 31, 2016. Obama also renewed his call to end subsidies to oil and gas companies and, with the saved revenue, create an Energy Security Trust Fund. If Congress could ever be persuaded to agree to something it has refused so far to do, ending those subsidies would provide money for research and development into advanced vehicle technologies. In addition, Obama proposed supporting investment in advanced vehicles and infrastructure with a new tax credit and an extension of tax credits to support development of cellulosic biofuels.
Lehner says of stricter truck efficiency:
We already know how to do this. According to the National Academy of Sciences, we have cost-effective technologies today which can cut fuel consumption and carbon pollution in trucks five percent a year. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) says that the U.S. on-road trucking fleet can cut its oil consumption 1 million barrels per day in 2030, which is roughly the amount of oil we imported from the Persian Gulf in 2012.Higher fuel-efficiency standards have run into considerable resistance in the past. In fact, they were stuck at 27 mpg for more than two decades, with improvements blocked by lobbyists for the automobile industry, the United Autoworkers and members of Congress with strong ties to both.
The Heavy Duty Fuel Efficiency Leadership Group, an informal alliance of some of trucking's biggest fleet operators, greeted the call for new truck standards affirmatively Tuesday. In a statement posted on the site of the American Trucking Associations, President Bill Graves urged the administration to move "judiciously":
“We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the President and his administration in 2011 when the historic first fuel efficiency standards were set for heavy-duty vehicles. As we begin this new round of standards, ATA hopes the administration will set forth a path that is both based on the best science and research available and economically achievable. [...]It took years of fighting to develop the new passenger vehicle fuel-efficiency standard, although it was kumbaya from all parties except diehard right-wingers when the standard was announced. Perhaps, with experience gained from that battle, the negotiations will go a bit smoother this time.
“Fuel is one of our industry’s largest expenses, so it makes sense that as an industry we would support proposals to use less of it. However, we should make sure that new rules don’t conflict with safety."
But while the inevitable maneuvering goes on, the administration ought to be looking beyond a new truck standard at the greater efficiencies to be had from switching some shipments from heavy-duty and medium-duty trucks to rail. This is a tall order. And it would take considerable time. However, adopting policies that spur investments in infrastructure that not only help boost the economy but also reduces our impact on the carbon-choked atmosphere is the kind of far-sighted approach we need after decades of singing la-la-la with our fingers in our ears.
Rail used to dominate both passenger and freight transport until the 1950s. But trucks could deliver goods more flexibly to far more locations than rail, and the spread of the interstate highway system gave long-haul trucking a tremendous boost. Railroad infrastructure declined, which also reduced how much freight could be shipped by rail. But rail still has one very big advantage: It is about four times as efficient as trucks.
Practically speaking, rail could only be expected to replace a fraction of what trucks haul. A rail line can't be built to every door. Miller at the Energy Collective calculates that a 25 percent switch would be a reasonable figure. That would change the current balance to 46 percent freight by rail and 24 percent by truck. (The rest moves by pipeline, barge, plane.)
Taking this step based on the existing 2014-2018 truck efficiency standards would save about half a million barrels of diesel fuel each day and 68 million metric tons of carbon emissions. That, Miller writes, would be equivalent to doubling today's renewable energy sources' electricity-generating capacity:
Switching [heavy-duty-vehicle] Trucking to Rail also presents many additional potential advantages and future benefits. Besides reducing the HDV wear-and-tear and associated costs for maintaining nearly all highways and roadways, increasing the infrastructure, terminals and numbers-usage of Trains potentially creates many other clean energy opportunities. In nearly all cases the bulk or intermodal freight shipments must be transferred and distributed to their final destinations via MDV/HDV Truck transports. These more centralized on-road supply chain distribution systems provide the opportunity to utilize increased alternative fueled vehicles such as natural gas ICE MDV/HDV Trucks. Natural gas motor fuels are more ideally suited for shorter-range transport that utilizes centralized (commercial) re-fueling stations. Since displacing diesel motor fuels with natural gas generates less than 30% of the carbon emissions, the added carbon emission benefits could be quite significant.Just upgrading lines and increasing the fraction of freight that rail moves even while locomotives still burn oil would make a significant difference. But switching ever-more freight to railroads operating with green-sourced electricity would be far better.
One element of such a transformation would be a project long championed by development economist Bruce McFarling—the Steel Interstate. That would eventually encompass 36,000 miles of super-efficient electrified rail. Combined with more efficient trucks, a revamping of America's rail system would go a long way toward cutting the U.S. contribution to global carbon emissions.
Now that's a goal that truly deserves to be called ambitious.
A Siegel has a post on this subject here.