Biden administration moves on stricter emissions standards

April 23, 2021

Tyson Fisher


The Biden administration has made several significant moves recently to address climate change and emissions standards, all of which can potentially affect the trucking industry.

On Thursday, April 22, President Joe Biden was busy addressing climate change, as promised during his election campaign. Most recently, efforts have included changes to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s emissions regulations, advancing the nation’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and a target to significantly reduce nationwide emissions by 2030.

NHTSA’s emissions preemption

On April 22, NHTSA announced it is making the steps needed to withdrawal a rule that preempts states from establishing stricter emissions standards and zero emissions vehicles mandates. A notice of proposed rulemaking was filed, enabling the pubic to comment.

Specifically, NHTSA proposes to repeal two provisions in the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule established by the Trump administration. In September 2019, NHTSA implemented the SAFE Vehicles Rule Part One: One National Program, also known as SAFE I Rule. The One National Program rule ensures a uniform national standard of fuel economy and emissions standards for passenger vehicles and light trucks. Those provisions, 49 CFR Parts 531 and 533, have a preemptive effect on actions of states that limit or prohibit tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions or establish zero-emissions vehicle mandates.

In February 2019, Trump and the California Air Resources Board were going to hold negotiations regarding SAFE Vehicles rules. However, Trump ended any attempts to compromise and moved ahead to roll back Obama-era emissions standards.

California has passed much stricter emissions standards than the federal limits, and has received a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to do so since the Nixon administration.

The Trump administration revoked that waiver.

Several months later, California and 22 other state and local governments filed a lawsuit against NHTSA. Those governments claimed that the SAFE Vehicles rule exceeds NHTSA’s authority.

On Biden’s first day in office, he signed Executive Order 13990, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis.” The executive order attempts to undo many climate-related executive orders signed by Trump. One provision in Biden’s executive order directs the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA to immediately review and consider suspending, revising, or rescinding the SAFE I Rule.

When or if NHTSA’s new rule is finalized, states like California will be allowed to establish stricter emissions standards as they have been able to do before.

Biden’s emissions reduction target

On the same day as NHTSA’s announcement, President Biden announced a new target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, Biden wants the nation to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030.

Announced during the Leaders Summit on Climate, the new target aligns with the administration’s goal of addressing climate change. On Jan. 20, Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement after Trump withdrew from it. Biden’s goal is to reach net-zero emissions economywide by 2050. The 2030 target was established by Biden’s National Climate Task Force.

Part of Biden’s plan to reach the new target includes reducing carbon pollution from the transportation sector by reducing tailpipe emissions and boosting the efficiency of cars and trucks. Additionally, the administration wants to provide funding for charging infrastructure.

The new emissions target has gained broad support from stakeholders. A day before the announcement, more than 400 stakeholders signed a letter to Biden expressing their support for the president’s new target. Among those companies were Ford Motor Co. and General Motors.

During the Trump administration, the auto industry supported moves that eliminated certain emissions requirements. Since Biden won the election, manufacturers have pivoted, recognizing that zero emissions vehicles cannot be avoided. In November, General Motors announced it will no longer support Trump’s effort to prevent California from establishing its own emissions rules. The company withdrew from the federal lawsuit between the administration and California and signaled its electric vehicle goals will be more in step with Biden’s.

Charging infrastructure investment

Also on April 22, the White House announced steps being taken to accelerate deployment of electric vehicles and chargers. According to a news release, those actions will “create good-paying, union jobs, and enable a clean transportation future.”

The U.S. DOT said it will establish guidance on how grants can be used to deploy charging infrastructure and newly designated alternative fuel corridors. Specifically, the DOT announced a fifth round of “Alternative Fuel Corridors” designations. This round includes nominations from 25 states for 51 interstates and 50 U.S. highways and state roads. Accounting for all five rounds, designations for all fuel types include 134 interstates and 125 U.S. highways/state roads, over a span of nearly 166,000 miles of the national highway system in 49 states plus the District of Columbia.

Nearly $42 billion in federal grants is available to be used for electric vehicle charging. Part of Biden’s American Jobs Plan includes $15 billion to build a national network of 500,000 charging stations to support convenient and affordable travel by drivers of zero-emission vehicles across the entire nation.

Climate change initiatives and trucking

None of the above actions from the Biden administration deal directly with commercial vehicles. The SAFE I Rule is specifically for passenger vehicles and light trucks, with the emissions target an economywide effort. However, these efforts can indirectly affect the trucking industry and may signal future actions aimed specifically at commercial vehicles.

Truck stops are already preparing for a zero emissions vehicle future. On the same day of the above announcements, TravelCenters of America announced the creation of eTA, a new business unit committed to sustainability and alternative energy.

“We are encouraged by the Biden administration’s demonstrated commitment to investing in infrastructure to create a more sustainable world and support public policy that advances the deployment of sustainable sources of energy,” John D. Thomas, TA’s senior vice president of sustainability and alternative energy, said in a statement. “We look forward to evaluating the business case for investing in cleaner transportation fuels and to working with policymakers to ensure well-intentioned ideas are implemented in a manner that can generate the desired results for all stakeholders. TA is embracing changes that will redefine America’s transportation infrastructure.”

Last August, Electrify America and Love’s Travel Stops announced a partnership to put public ultra-fast electric vehicle charging stations at seven locations in six states.

The reversal of the SAFE I Rule also can open the doors for states to establish stricter emissions standards for commercial vehicles.

Although electric vehicles are available, they are not currently applicable to long-haul operations due to short mileage range and a lack of charging infrastructure.

Furthermore, some large carriers are using climate change as an excuse to pass trucking regulations favorable to them. In March, FedEx CEO Frederick W. Smith told House members during a hearing that allowing longer trailers, or twin 33s, will combat climate change.

However, none of these actions could have a lasting effect. If Biden resorts to executive orders, they can be reversed the next time Republicans take over the White House, much like Biden did with Trump’s orders. The only way for climate change initiatives to stick is to have them in the form of legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president. LL



Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.