It'll take close to a decade, but one day buses belching black soot and 18-wheelers spewing plumes of exhaust could go the way of the Model T.
In a proposal unveiled yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined far-reaching regulations mandating cleaner-burning diesel engines and virtually sulfur-free diesel fuel by 2007.
The move is expected to clean tons of pollutants from the air - the EPA says it's the equivalent of taking 13 million trucks and buses off the road. By reducing sulfur in the dirtier-burning fuel, the agency claims tailpipe emissions from large vehicles will be reduced by 95 percent.
"The move is momentous because it gets at a significant cause of air pollution flowing through cities and along interstates," says Vickie Patton, a senior attorney with Environmental Defense in Denver. "Most of us have experienced the noxious exhaust from large diesel trucks and buses."
The regulations, expected to be finalized within a year, would mandate no more than 15 sulfur parts per million in diesel fuel. The fuel currently contains 350 to 500 parts per million. The virtually sulfur-free fuel would be the standard within six years. New-generation engines would burn the cleaner diesel more efficiently, further reducing emissions.
The EPA has determined that diesel exhaust or the particulate in the exhaust is a probable human carcinogen.
Despite the obvious benefits, cleaner air will come at a cost to a range of industries. A lobbying campaign is already under way in Washington against them. From petroleum refiners to the Society of American Florists, a long line of opponents are worried about the economic impact of the new strictures.
Refiners, for example, say the plan is fraught with technical problems - keeping low-sulfur fuel clean when transporting it through existing pipelines would be difficult. Refiners also question whether they can produce enough of the cleaner fuel, possibly creating future shortages.
"This extreme proposal is a blueprint for future supply problems," says Urvan Sternfels of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association in Washington.
For their part, truckers say the proposal is one more burdensome regulation that will force more owner-operators out of business due to increased fuel costs and higher purchase prices for diesel rigs.
"The trucking industry will not watch from the sidelines as we are singled out for far more stringent regulation, while extreme sources of pollution have yet to do their fair share," says Walter McCormick, president of the American Trucking Association in Washington.
The ATA complains diesel-burning railroad locomotives, construction equipment, and farm engines spew twice the amount of pollution into the air as large trucks.
That concern is mirrored out West at the Flying J Truck Stop in Cheyenne, Wyo. The Flying J is a major hub for truck traffic along the I-25 corridor between Cheyenne and Denver.
"I think it might hurt the owner-operator more than it would the big companies that typically pick up the fuel charges," says Rod Rusk, general manager of the Flying J.
Mr. Rusk says newer trucks are already far cleaner than their predecessors of even a decade ago. "The newer trucks have engines that are efficient and turbo charged," he says. "Compared to the old trucks, you don't see much exhaust coming out the tailpipe at all."
Yet the regulations will have impacts well beyond the trucking industry. They may allow automakers to sell more diesel cars here in the US. Currently, diesel vehicles are effectively outlawed by pollution regulations in California, which the automakers have said they can't meet with current levels of sulfur in diesel fuel. But they should be able to meet them with the new low-sulfur fuel.
Because diesel fuel is more efficient, that would allow Detroit to meet tighter fuel-economy regulations for SUVs, by building more of them with diesels.
r Eric C. Evarts contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society