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Obama’s Fuel Economy Drive for Trucks Aims to Curb Fast-Growing Climate Change Problem

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Photograph by Thomas Millard, National Geographic Your Shot

In his call Tuesday for boosting the fuel economy of heavy-duty trucks, President Barack Obama is taking aim at one of the world’s fastest growing engines of oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions.

But one of the most popular ideas for reducing oil demand in trucking—switching to natural gas—may not help on climate change. A major new analysis published just last week indicates that the leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane, the main component of natural gas, is likely great enough to outweigh the benefits of natural gas vehicles. (See related, “Methane Emissions Far Worse than U.S. Estimates.”)

In Search of Supertrucks

In unveiling his plan, Obama talked less about fuel switching and more about other steps that can reduce gas guzzling by big trucks. Standing in the truck bay of a Safeway warehouse, he pointed to a nearby redesigned “supertruck” that was able to achieve a 75 percent improvement in fuel economy through steps like improved aerodynamics and tires that cut rolling resistance. (Take this related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel.”)

He called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation to develop a proposal within a year to boost fuel efficiency throughout the trucking industry. He noted that trucks account for only 4 percent of the vehicles on the road—“I know when you’re driving sometimes it feels like it’s more,” he added—but generate more than 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, the International Energy Agency sees demand for diesel fuel growing three times faster than demand for gasoline over the next 25 years, an indication that increasing truck traffic is behind a large portion of the world’s future growth in oil demand. (See related, “IEA World Outlook: Six Trends Shaping the Energy Future.”)

The Sierra Club noted in a statement of support for Obama’s initiative that that most tractor trailers on the road today average only six miles per gallon, nearly the same as they did decades ago. “We have the technology to nearly double the fuel economy of tractor trailers, and now we need to put it to work,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. “By setting a next round of strong heavy-duty vehicle standards, the Obama administration can slash oil use, save consumers money, and cut dangerous pollution.”

Cheaper Fuel, But Few Stations

Obama said the administration also would seek to offer new tax credits for companies that manufacture alternative heavy-duty vehicles and those that build alternative fueling infrastructure. The president said the policy would be fuel-neutral, designed to help spur fueling station build-out for trucks running on biodiesel, natural gas, or hybrid electric technology.

But since biodiesel currently costs more than petroleum diesel fuel, and big hybrid electrics have yet to hit the market in any meaningful way, the alternative most likely to boosted by the policy is natural gas.

There’s no question that given today’s pump prices in the United States, converting freight haulers from diesel fuel to newly abundant natural gas would mean big savings in fuel costs. Natural gas would allow U.S. truckers to shave about 30 percent off the average price they are paying for diesel fuel, which last week was $3.98 a gallon. (Clean Energy Fuels, the the company co-founded by T. Boone Pickens, which is the largest supplier of natural gas for transportation in the United States, reports that liquefied natural gas (LNG), the form of the fuel most suitable to long-haul trucking, is going for $2.90 per diesel gallon equivalent, while CNG, suitable for shorter distance trucking, is at about $2.76.)

The American Gas Foundation and the consulting group IHS CERA recently released a study, “Fueling the Future with Natural Gas: Bringing it Home,” which found that for 18-wheelers, the fuel savings from switching to natural gas are large enough that the extra upfront cost of the vehicle, approximately $40,000, is recouped in less than two years.

But in what has turned out to be a classic chicken-and-egg problem, natural gas fueling infrastructure has stalled, awaiting arrival of more  heavy-duty trucks that run on natural gas, while truck makers that have developed big rig LNG technology have pulled back on plans to market them, saying their adoption in fleets is uncertain. (See related, “The New Truck Stop: Filling Up With Natural Gas for the Long Haul.”)

Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association, praised Obama for the support of natural gas within his broader trucking plan: “Natural gas vehicles will play major role in helping to improve our environment and our national security, and provide real, long-term savings to consumers, and we’re pleased to see his focus on the use of natural gas for the heavy-duty sector,” he said.


Obama said that cutting heavy truck fuel consumption would not only drive down oil imports and reduce carbon pollution, it would also cut trucking costs, helping to reduce the price pressure on consumer goods. “It’s not just a win-win, it’s a win-win-win,” he said. “You’ve got three wins.”

But switching to natural gas might only add up to two wins, according to the latest research on methane, which is 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Natural Gas.”)  A new study published Thursday in Science says methane leakage is a great enough problem that it undercuts any greenhouse gas advantage of switching from diesel fuel to natural gas in trucks or any vehicles.(See related, “Methane: Good Gas, Bad Gas.”)

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t other benefits to substituting natural gas for diesel fuel,” said Francis O’Sullivan, director of research and analysis for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative, and one of the paper’s co-authors in a pre-publication news briefing last week, noting that natural gas vehicles have fewer noxious and smog-causing pollutants than diesel vehicles. “They’re much cleaner, they’re much nicer to stand next to. They have an important role in reducing oil consumption. Those are all reasons why you might want to make the switch. But from a climate perspective, it appears it’s not going to be a big win.” (See related, “ “Trading Oil for Natural Gas in the Truck Lane.”)

In the meantime, the trucking industry voiced support in principle for Obama’s fuel economy initiative, but warned against rapid deployment of uncertain or costly technology. “Fuel is one of our industry’s largest expenses, so it makes sense that as an industry we would support proposals to use less of it,” said ATA Bill Graves, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations. “However, we should make sure that new rules don’t conflict with safety or other environmental regulations, nor should they force specific types of technology onto the market before they are fully tested and ready.”