The Energy 202: More than a dozen states unite to boost electric trucks

The Energy 202: The oil lobby is already finding fault with Biden’s new climate plan

More than a dozen states are teaming up to boost sales of pickup trucks, school buses and big rigs that run entirely on electricity and do not pump climate-warming pollution into the air.

Leaders from Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and 10 other states, along with the District of Columbia, say they will try to make sure every new medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sold within their borders is fully electric by the middle of the century.

The agreement is not legally binding, and it promises to send a fleet of electric trucks onto the road before the technology to do so is fully developed. But it is the latest sign of Democratic-controlled states taking steps to combat climate change in the absence of federal action from the Trump administration.

The state-level moves are also an effort to diminish a source of air pollution that disproportionately chokes poor and minority neighborhoods, which often abut the highways on which diesel-guzzling trucks carry freight.

“We want clean air, reliable transportation, better health outcomes and cost effective climate solutions,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in Connecticut, one of the states that signed the agreement.

The states say they will work together to adopt policies meant to encourage the sale of electric commercial vehicles and the construction of charging stations for them.

Possible steps the states may take include giving rebates or tax breaks to buyers of heavy-duty electric vehicles, requiring cities to switch to electric transit buses and encouraging utilities to install charging stations for large commercial vehicles.

The goal is to have every delivery van, box truck and other large commercial vehicle sold in those states — which represent about a third of the U.S. market — be electric by 2050. Their interim target is 30 percent of sales be for zero-emissions trucks by 2030.

The agreement leaves the details of achieving all of that to the states. One crucial question for each jurisdiction is whether to follow in the footsteps of California — by far the most aggressive when it comes to cutting tailpipe pollution.

Last month, the liberal bastion became the first in the nation to require auto manufacturers to sell electric trucks. More than half of automakers’ truck sales need to be of zero-emission vehicles there by 2035.

Several major automakers are developing electric pickups, but a big question is if they will be ready to meet the demand the blue states are trying to juice.

Ford is working on an electric version of its F-series pickup, consistently the nation’s best-selling line of vehicles. And Tesla, the electric-car pioneer, last year unveiled its first electric pickup — cheekily named the Cybertruck.

But the market for electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, especially long-haul trucks, is not as developed as the one for passenger cars, although several major companies — including Amazon, Ikea and PepsiCo — have publicly promised to electrify parts of their shipping fleets. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“That’s, frankly, the point of doing something like this: to give some kind of market signal and market certainty to those developers because they are investing significant amounts of money,” said Paul Miller, head of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a Boston-based consortium of air-quality agencies that helped organized the agreement.

Most of the states have the option of imposing California’s new requirement that manufacturers sell electric trucks. But it remains to be seen whether they will do so in the face of both legal uncertainty opposition from the oil and auto industry.

California and a coalition of other states are locked in a lawsuit against the Trump administration after the Environmental Protection Agency revoked the state’s ability to set auto emissions standards tougher than the federal government’s.

One state considering adopting the California electric truck rule is Colorado. Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the state is evaluating whether enough cars will be available if more than one state has a mandate in place.

“It is still a more nascent market than the light-duty vehicles,” she said.

Kelly Crawford, associate director of air quality at the Department of Energy and Environment in the District of Columbia, said Washington will also consider adopting California’s mandate.

“At a time when the federal government is moving to dismantle clean transportation programs,” she wrote by email, the multi-state agreement “presents an important opportunity for states to lead on climate action and to improve air quality and public health in our most vulnerable communities.”

Other states in the non-binding pact are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

Environmentalists cheered the agreement, while industry is skeptical of other states adopting California’s stance.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Paul Cort, a staff attorney for the environmental litigation group Earthjustice.

“It’s not as aggressive as the California standard,” he said, adding: “The California standard is fresh. People are still digesting it.”

The air pollution from large vehicles often weighs on black and brown communities the most. All but one of Manhattan’s bus depots, for example, is above 96th Street — in Harlem and other historically black neighborhoods.

“The cleanest fuel we can get will make a big difference in air quality” in those places, said Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a local green group that has sued New York over its placement of the bus depots.

But the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association, which represents Daimler, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and other truck makers, said that while its members are developing electric trucks, California also need to require fleet owners to buy electric vehicles for its plan to work — something state regulators are working on but haven’t yet finalized.

The rule “is built on a flawed regulatory structure and thus it risks poisoning the market,” the trade group wrote in a comment to California in May. The association has also argued against imposing stricter regulations in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which led to a collapse in auto sales.

But Lew in Colorado argued that the spread of the virus only highlights trucking as a pollution source as so many people stuck at home and ordering items online.

“Over the course of covid,” she said, “we’re only seeing how important and how pervasive trucking is in moving goods and services that we rely on for every aspect of our lives.”

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