EPA Plans to Curb Non-highway Diesel Emissions

Published June 1, 2003

Emissions from non-highway diesel engines will be cut by more than 90 percent under a proposal announced April 15 by Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The new restrictions would apply to such vehicles as farm combines, construction equipment, and off-road vehicles.

According to Whitman, the new restrictions “will be the most far-reaching diesel programs in the world today.”

Diesel engines currently power two-thirds of all agricultural equipment, more than 60 percent of all construction equipment, and 94 percent of all freight ton-miles.

EPA estimates that by 2030, the proposal will prevent 9,600 premature deaths, 16,000 heart attacks, and 260,000 respiratory problems in children. The proposed rule is scheduled to take effect next year after EPA reviews public comments.

“This is a proposal to dramatically reduce emissions from non-road diesel engines used in construction, agricultural, and industrial equipment,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. “It will require stringent, non-road engine controls and reductions of sulfur in diesel fuel.”

Usual Bush Critics Approve

The new proposal garnered the approval of groups typically critical of environmental policies proposed by the Bush administration.

“Governor Whitman’s bold proposal will be the biggest public health step since lead was removed from gasoline more than two decades ago,” said Richard Kassel, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“This week marks a rare moment of harmony between the Bush administration and environmentalists–so rare, in fact, that it calls for reflection,” asserted a Washington Post house editorial. “New regulations limiting pollution emitted by bulldozers, tractors, road-building and irrigation equipment and other ‘off-road’ diesel vehicles … sounds like a small change, but it is expected to greatly improve air quality.

“A handful of major environmental lobbyists praised the new rules, which will ultimately slash the sulfur content of emissions by 99 percent,” continued the Washington Post. “So too, though, did a handful of industry lobbyists, including the American petroleum industry, whose spokesman complimented the EPA for ‘consulting with all stakeholders early on.'”

Industry Reaffirms Commitment

According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), “The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to cut emissions from diesel-powered construction, agricultural, and industrial equipment should substantially improve air quality while minimizing additional costs to consumers. The proposal significantly reduces diesel engine emissions levels and substantially reduces sulfur levels in off-road diesel fuel.”

“These are substantial reductions that will require substantial investments from refiners,” said API fuels specialist Marc Meteyer. “The phased-in approach makes it possible. It promises to give the industry more flexibility, and it’s a win-win for consumers who will get cleaner air at less cost.”

Meteyer pointed out that the refining sector is already making major changes in its equipment and processes to produce lower sulfur gasoline and lower sulfur diesel for highway vehicles.

Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, noted that “in some off-road sectors, particulate matter (PM) emissions already have been reduced by 85 percent since 1996. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions have been reduced by 70 percent in that same time frame, and will be reduced by another 40 percent by 2006 under current regulations, resulting in a total NOx reduction of 82 percent.

“These non-road emissions reductions will be achieved in a period of only 10 years between 1996 and 2006,” Schaeffer continued. By contrast, comparable reduction percentages from on-highway engines have been achieved over the 30-year period from 1974-2004.

“Not surprisingly,” Schaeffer added, “these continuous improvements mean that diesel exhaust from non-road engines currently represents just a small percentage of the nation’s overall emissions inventory.” Emissions from non-road diesel engines currently account for less than 1 percent of particulate matter (PM) emissions, 7 percent of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, and less than 1 percent of carbon monoxide emissions from all sources.

Diesel Getting a Boost

EPA’s proposal capped a newsworthy six-week period for diesel fuel technology.

FedEx announced on March 21 that it would begin purchasing hybrid diesel-electric powered delivery trucks next year. By 2007, FedEx expects to be purchasing hybrid diesel-electric trucks exclusively.

According to Gwen Ruta, director of the Alliance for Environmental Initiatives, which worked with FedEx in developing its hybrid vehicle plan, the new FedEx trucks will produce 90 percent fewer emissions than FedEx’s current truck fleet. The new trucks also will get 50 percent better fuel economy.

The FedEx plan was buoyed by a March study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), concluding that hybrid diesel-electric engines offer the most short-term promise for the reduction of vehicular greenhouse gas emissions.

Importantly, the MIT study predicted hydrogen fuel cells will not be feasible in automobiles for another 30 to 50 years. “The hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle has low emissions and energy use on the road–but converting a hydrocarbon fuel such as natural gas or gasoline into hydrogen to fuel this vehicle uses substantial energy and emits greenhouse gases.”

“Ignoring the emissions and energy use involved in making and delivering the fuel and manufacturing the vehicle gives a misleading impression,” said Malcom Weiss, senior research director at MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.