Despite the coronavirus pandemic and most of the nation under a lockdown, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is racing to finalize a comprehensive air quality strategy, drawing together its many current and proposed clean vehicle regulations.

Agriculture groups fear the ambitious goals for medium- and heavy-duty trucks will grow and expand to encompass more businesses over the coming years, further escalating shipping costs during an already uncertain economic time.

“Those (trucks) are big for getting our product to and from facilities as well as from processing facilities to market,” said Chris McGlothlin, a policy advisor for the Western Agricultural Processors Association (WAPA) who has been closely involved with the regulatory process. “That's an area that we've been focusing on pretty heavily.”

The plan, known as the 2020 Mobile Source Strategy, also relies on incentives programs that have helped farmers to upgrade their tractors and equipment. But funding for this was already dissipating before the nation began its plunge into a recession this year.

The strategy encompasses a broad range of regulations and potential policies for on- and off-road vehicles, as well as ships, locomotives and lawnmowers, and builds significantly from the original 2016 strategy.

“There remains a need for additional state effort, particularly for heavy-duty trucks and engines to accelerate the transition of the mobile sector to the cleanest technologies possible,” said CARB Executive Officer Richard Corey in a board meeting last week.

Corey pointed to near-term deadlines that must be met for lowering pollution levels in the San Joaquin Valley and the South Coast regions, where the state’s most vulnerable populations have been impacted by poor air quality. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Senate Bill 44, which requires CARB to complete an update to the Mobile Source Strategy before 2021. Staff plan to release a draft to the board in the fall.

Staff have been responsive to industry concerns about the aggressive timelines. CARB has extended some comment periods for specific programs like the zero-emission mandate for refrigeration units on trucks. Yet the agency is not delaying any of its processes for major new regulations.

Instead, the board has actually been encouraged by new research linking chronic air pollution to higher COVID-19 mortality rates. CARB also announced in the meeting it would be ramping up its own research efforts during the pandemic, including a more in-depth study on the relationship between COVID-19 and air pollution on economically disadvantaged communities and communities of color.

“This connection highlights another benefit from strong air pollution controls and an import reason to keep pushing forward on clean air progress as quickly as possible,” said CARB program manager Bonnie Soriano.

Board Chair Mary Nichols also pointed to the billions of dollars Congress has been sending to the state as part of its COVID-19 emergency relief funding, calling it “a tremendous opportunity to help California leap forward in efforts to eliminate combustion.”

Mary Nichols

CARB Chair Mary Nichols

The Mobile Source Strategy is the first step in developing new regulations and programs for federally mandated air quality plans and for an update to CARB’s Climate Scoping Plan in 2022.

“The scenarios are basically aggressive, because we don't want to undershoot the needed technological transformation at the beginning point,” said Corey.

Within the Mobile Source Strategy, agriculture is specifically targeted for tractors and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The industry contributed to 18% of the nitrogen oxide emissions last year in the San Joaquin Valley. To address the issue, CARB, in partnership with the local air pollution control district has been setting standards to accelerate the adoption of tier 4 tractors among farmers, a still new and costly market for the equipment.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration set up an incentive program to cover some of those costs, known by the acronym FARMER. The budget for the incentives comes from the state’s cap-and-trade program. Yet revenues were down significantly at the start of the year, as shown in the broad cuts to incentives programs in the governor’s January budget proposal. The sudden recession means the state is not likely to make up for the shortfall before the air district’s upcoming deadline for compliance. The agency has yet to answer the question of what CARB will do if that funding does not materialize.

CARB staff have repeatedly highlighted how successful FARMER has been in reducing pollution, recognizing the value of the program and giving McGlothlin hope.

“That's a huge positive for us,” said WAPA’s Chris McGlothlin. “That further highlights the need for that kind of money to push this incentive program along, because there's definite buy-in from our industry.”

Chris McGlothlin

Chris McGlothlin, Director of Technical Services, WAPA

The future of the program will be made clearer in mid-May, when Newsom releases his revised budget proposal.

The industry has also been closely following the evolution of CARB’s Advanced Clean Trucks regulation, which also falls within the umbrella of the 2020 Mobile Source Strategy.

To meet the state’s carbon neutrality goal for 2045, CARB is proposing to require 3% of truck sales include zero-emission models in 2024, phasing up to 60% for some truck classes by 2045. Staff anticipate zero emission vehicles will make up 76% of the total statewide fleet inventory by 2045. 

State and national trucking associations called the sales mandates “extremely ambitious” and at a pace not seen even in the consumer car market, where the technology is already commercialized and performance expectations are lower. Yet some environmental groups are pushing for those numbers to be even higher, to better ensure the pollution goals will be met.

The proposal also requires businesses with more than $50 million in annual sales to inventory all trucks going in and out of their facilities and report on those emissions sources. McGlothlin said it would only be “a short step” for them to expand that rule to all businesses.

Adding to this, CARB has been regularly updating other greenhouse gas reduction mandates for truck manufacturers, pushing them to clean up diesel engines and add design elements to tractor trailers to create less wind drag and more fuel efficiency.

CARB also plans to add requirements on pickup trucks beginning in 2027. This raised concerns at a CARB meeting on the clean truck rule in December.

“We expect the costs of all pickup trucks to increase under this rule,” said Noelle Cremers, a policy advocate at the time for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Cremers explained that for a rancher to cover the cost of buying a pickup truck in 1980, he would have to sell about 17 calves. Today that number is 47 calves.

“Any additional cost is born by that business and they don't have the ability to pass that on,” she said. “They have to somehow come up with that new money.”

The Farm Bureau encouraged the board to pursue incentives rather than mandates for zero emission vehicles.

Along with the uncertainty over the budget, CARB will have to reach an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The state must apply for special permission to enforce mandates like the Advanced Clean Trucks rule. The ongoing battle over emissions standards for consumer cars has shown how strained that relationship has become lately.

CARB staff are instead pinning their plans on the presidential election. Both the clean truck rule and the 2020 Mobile Source Strategy will not be ready for board approval until after November.

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