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States Join Forces to Ensure Emissions Cut

Agencies are adopting identical rules in case EPA standards get delayed

by Cheryl Hogue
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

Credit: Photodisc
Credit: Photodisc

State officials are uniting in a groundbreaking way on behalf of cleaner air, flexing their muscles against powerful lobbying interests. Regulators from a dozen states are trying to ensure that federal standards limiting emissions from diesel engines will go into effect as planned in 2007, despite pressure for delays by the trucking industry.

Historically, states have issued air pollution regulations tailored to their particular geography, climate, economics, and legal systems. But 12 states and the District of Columbia this year are adopting virtually the same rule to curb emissions from heavy-duty diesel engines. The rule sets the same standards as an Environmental Protection Agency regulation unveiled in December 2000. While some states have banded together in the past on tougher-than-federal regulations for emissions, this marks the first time they have done so to adopt standards identical to those of EPA.

This effort is an "insurance policy" for standards in case EPA is persuaded--or forced by Congress--to relax or delay the federal regulation, explains S. William Becker, executive director of two groups of air regulators: the State & Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators (STAPPA) and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officers (ALAPCO).

The states that are adopting the standards account for one-third of nationwide sales of heavy-duty diesel engines, Becker says. STAPPA and ALAPCO believe the states' actions will create "a critical mass" that will lead manufacturers to build only clean engines for sale across the U.S. regardless of whether the EPA rule remains undisturbed. They hope their strategy will dissuade engine makers from producing the older design, dirtier engines for distribution in the other 38 states should EPA's regulation be altered or delayed.

California wrote the rule, finalizing it in 2001. New York and Pennsylvania have already adopted it. Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Rhode Island are in the process of finalizing it, Becker says.

States and localities are depending on the emissions-cutting rule to help them meet federal air quality benchmarks for ground-level ozone and particulate matter, Becker explains. The emissions standards are a crucial component of air cleanup plans in many states and localities that now fail to meet those benchmarks, he says.

The EPA standards establish stringent emissions limits on heavy-duty diesel engines for two types of pollutants: nitrogen oxides, which are precursors to ozone, and particulates. The federal standards are to take effect for these engines beginning with the 2007 model year. They require manufacturers of the engines to cut particulate emissions by 90% and NOx by 95% from existing levels. In addition, the rule slashes the amount of sulfur allowed in diesel fuel by 97%.

In March, the General Accounting Office (which has since become the Government Accountability Office) found that most petroleum refiners and engine makers are investing in changes required by the EPA regulation and expect to meet the new standards on time. An independent review panel convened by EPA reached similar conclusions in October 2002.

But the trucking industry has attacked the standards. The American Trucking Associations says EPA's original estimates of the cost and benefits of the rule are wrong. Some trucking firms want more time to test the performance of the cleaner engines. If they don't get more time, they say, companies may stock up on trucks with the dirtier--but proven--engines before 2007, delaying the clean air and health benefits of the rule. Some trucking interests are also seeking tax breaks for the purchase of the cleaner engines.

THE TRUCKING SECTOR has reached out to Congress for help. The report by GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, was one of the results. GAO recommended that EPA form an independent panel "to review industry's progress in developing the necessary technologies."

Jeffrey R. Holmstead, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, wrote in a letter to GAO that creating such a panel "would be a mistake." Regulated industries now have the certainty of a final federal rule that comes into force in 2007, Holmstead said. Formation of a review panel might suggest that the agency could delay or change the standards, causing uncertainty for truck buyers, engine makers, and fuel suppliers--and may delay their progress in meeting the deadline, he explained.

Becker says the effort to maintain the diesel engine standards may mark just the first time states join forces in efforts to ensure that an EPA regulation goes into effect as planned.

"We'd much prefer not to have to do this at all," he says. But STAPPA and ALAPCO are reviewing other federal rules that are important to state regulators for meeting their clean air goals but "are not as fixed as we'd like them to be." He adds, "Stay tuned."



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