Fuel Economy Limits for Big Trucks

With oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, it seemed an opportune time for the Obama administration to do something it has sought to do for some time -- set mileage and pollution limits for big trucks.

Currently, there are no such requirements for big rigs, although the pressures of running a competitive business have always pushed truck operators toward the most fuel-efficient rigs they can buy.

Estimates are that the typical big-rig truck averages something on the order of 6.5 miles per gallon of diesel fuel, and that same truck will burn about 20,000 gallons of fuel annually. Over-the-road trucks make up just 4 percent of the total vehicle fleet but consume more than 20 percent of on-road transportation fuels, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that has been heavily involved in the global warming debate. In comparison, passenger cars, which now average more than 20 mpg in the aggregate, seem much more fuel-efficient, but that misses the point that big-rig trucks transport exceptionally heavy loads that are vital to the nation’s commerce -- including, for example, virtually all of our food. 

New Fuel Economy Rules Might Be Costly
If the new fuel economy rules reduce the capabilities of the trucks, the overall effect might end up costing both truck operators, businesses and consumers much more. The good news is that the new standards haven’t been formulated yet, so there is time to make sure that they will actually reduce overall fuel usage and save consumers’ and businesses’ money. The regulations are set to be issued in a little over a year, and they will apply to commercial medium and heavy trucks beginning in 2014.

If technology enables an improvement in big-rig fuel economy by 3.7 mpg, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates it would reduce American annual oil consumption by 11 billion gallons in 2030. But those estimates assume that the cargo-carrying ability of the trucks would not be diminished in the process. The Obama administration suggests that a 25 percent increase in big truck fuel economy is possible using current technologies. Under a plan already in place, auto manufacturers must increase their overall fleet fuel economy ratings from 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks to a combined 35.5 mpg by 2016. Carmakers are currently scrambling to find ways to reach those hard-to-achieve levels.

President Obama Seeks Energy Independence
“We know that our dependence on foreign oil endangers our security and our economy. We know that climate change poses a threat to our way of life -- in fact we’re already seeing some of the profound and costly impacts,” President Obama said in his weekly radio address. “And the disaster in the Gulf only underscores that even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil, our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies.”

Institute for Energy Research Says Benefits Are Dubious
Others are much less sanguine about the idea. The Institute for Energy Research, a think tank and lobbying group, noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that the administration’s efforts to force Americans to purchase vehicles that will deliver better fuel economy, including the newly minted big-truck proposal, will have minimal effects on global warming and the associated expected rise in sea levels. They ask if the small benefits are worth the substantial expense the changes will ultimately require -- in additional costs of vehicles themselves and of transportation for goods we all use every day.