February 18 2014

New Fuel-Efficiency Standards for Trucks: A Political Priority, Not a Policy Improvement

National Review Online

Jillian Kay Melchior

President Obama announced a new round of fuel-efficiency rules for trucks today, saying that the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency would work together to find new ways to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

The new standards, part of the president’s “year of action,” will doubtless appeal to the green faction of the Democratic party. But the rushed effort seems less sensible when one considers that trucking companies already have a strong incentive to be as fuel-efficient as possible, and further regulation is likely to carry several unintended consequences.  

Fuel is one of the most costly inputs for the trucking industry, so before any regulation at all, the private sector had made extensive efforts to cut down on fuel usage.

“There are no reasons for these standards,” says Daniel Simmons, director of regulatory affairs for the Institute for Energy Research. “[Trucking businesses] already spend a lot of money figuring out how to be efficient. They know where their trucks are, how fast they’re going in real time, how efficient their trucks are, and what they can do to improve efficiency much better than the federal government does.”

The first set of truck efficiency regulations, requiring trucks to cut fuel consumption and emissions by 10 to 20 percent, were implemented seven weeks ago, meaning trucking companies are just beginning to see any of their side effects.

Even before today’s round of regulations, the existing new rules will probably affect the delicate balance underpinning the trucking industry’s business model. There are ways to make fleets more fuel efficient, but they’re expensive, and unless the subsequent fuel savings cover the upfront cost, trucking companies are likely to raise prices, which will eventually affect the cost of the goods they transport.

More worrisome, though, are the potential safety risks of the efficiency innovations. Trucks can reduce their fuel consumption by using lighter tires, but that can also raise the risk of blowouts. Likewise, lower fairings, to reduce the amount of space between the trailer and the road can improve the aerodynamics of the trucks, reducing fuel consumption – but they can also accumulate sleet, and in extreme weather, they can result in flying ice chunks that jeopardize passenger cars.

“We are embarking on a large experiment with these heavy-duty trucks and how you can make them more fuel-efficient,” Simmons says, but “[trucking companies] will be relying on newer technologies instead of time-tested technologies that have proven safe for decades. There could be safety problems, but the point is, we won’t know until they’re tested in the real world.”

By starting preparations for the new round of fuel-efficiency standards now, President Obama ensures that the new standards will be implemented before his second term ends — but also that we won’t have time to assess the possible downsides of new efficiency measures. The rush to implement new rules seems to have less to do with sound policy and more to do with cramming through a political agenda.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum.

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