Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cost tens of thousands of lives and produced a stream of devastating images documenting the human toll of war. It has also tallied another cost, perhaps not as dramatic, but one that impacts Americans within our borders.
Oil prices, a key driver of inflation around the world, shot up nearly 25% after the invasion began, in anticipation of likely disruptions or outright bans on Russia’s massive exports. Three months later, gasoline prices average nearly $5 across the country and are above $6 in California. Because gasoline and diesel are essential to supply chains, pain at the pump has bled into higher consumer prices on all sorts of other goods, including food.
We have two options to reduce the economic impact of foreign wars on the American public. The short-term, and short-sighted option is encouraging more oil production in the United States, supposedly increasing supply and lowering gas prices—until the next oil war. Oil also flows wherever in the world prices are highest, meaning what we produce here won’t stay here.
The smarter, permanent fix is ending the stranglehold fossil fuels have on our economy by cutting oil demand. This cuts gas prices and fights inflation. Burning less gas and diesel also avoids volatile price swings, reduces toxic air pollution, and lowers the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.
While the Biden Administration can’t do all of that overnight, it can take a huge step without needing a single vote in Congress. Here’s how.
Last March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new nitrogen oxide and greenhouse gas emissions standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks starting in 2027. Targeting the transportation sector makes sense—it’s the top contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for two-thirds of national oil consumption.
Cutting emissions from also makes a big difference on oil use. While commercial trucks and buses make up fewer than 10% of the vehicles on the road, they are a disproportionately large factor in oil usage and emissions. These large vehicles burn around 24% of the transportation sector’s fuel, pump out the majority of toxic air pollutants, and nearly a quarter of the sector’s greenhouse gases.
As the former Director of the U.S. EPA’s Department of Transportation and Air Quality for 18 years, I know strong action is not only necessary, but justified and workable. The U.S. EPA considers multiple factors when proposing standards, including the current science, what is possible technologically, investments in zero emissions technology, existing state actions, and public benefits. In this case, strong action makes sense across the board.
The technology needed to meet EPA’s standards is within reach, positioning zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) to achieve cost parity with diesel trucks in the 2025-2030 timeframe. And an Environmental Defense Fund study found that several types of heavy vehicles in urban environments—delivery trucks, buses, school buses, garbage trucks, shuttle buses—could be at cost parity with diesel trucks as early as 2027. This rapid technological improvement has led the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to project zero emission trucks could reach 42% of all sales by 2030.
Industry is also investing heavily in ZEV technology, targeting high adoption rates – and sales. Daimler, the world’s leading heavy-duty truck manufacturer, expects up to 60% of its sales will be ZEVs by 2030. Volvo Group set a 2040 goal for 100% zero emissions truck and bus sales. The CEO of Navistar, recently acquired by VW, believes 50% of the company’s sales will be electric by 2030 and 100% by 2040. In Europe, a joint statement by major truck makers established a 2040 date for 100% ZEV sales.
These manufacturing commitments are based on strong private sector demand for ZEVs, not wishful thinking. According to national nonprofit CALSTART, as of December 2021, 1,215 zero-emission medium and heavy-duty trucks were on U.S. roads, employed by 163 fleets. But that number is accelerating. By 2030, Amazon is aiming to have 50% of its shipments made by electric or non-motorized vehicles. FedEx plans to electrify its entire pickup and delivery fleet by 2040, the same year Walmart intends to complete converting its fleet to vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen, or renewable diesel fuel.
States are also pushing the transition forward quickly. California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington—representing about 20% of the medium- and heavy-duty trucks on U.S. roads—have signed onto a goal of 100 percent zero-emitting freight trucks and buses by 2040. Another dozen states plan to adopt ZEV truck sales requirement this year or next.
The public benefits would also be enormous—reducing rates of asthma, heart disease, cancer and preventing up to 9,600 premature deaths by 2050. Cutting air pollution from trucks will have the biggest health outcomes in underserved, low-income, and black and brown communities that have disproportionately borne the burden of air pollution.
Meanwhile, the rules will speed up a green economic transition by reducing our fossil fuel addiction. They will encourage U.S.-based companies to lead, innovate, and create jobs in growing ZEV technology markets. And, mitigating climate change effects will also reduce the national security risks described in a recent U.S. Department of Defense report entitled Climate Risk Analysis.
Strong action by the U.S. EPA to cut truck and bus emissions would reflect the current science, technological readiness, investments, state actions, and huge public benefits. This should start with requiring that ZEVs comprise 40% of sales for delivery trucks and short haul tractor-trailers, and 80% of new bus sales should be zero emissions by 2029.
I know from first-hand experience that the U.S. EPA can work together with all stakeholders, including truck manufacturers, fleets, states, labor, and environmental groups to establish a fair set of final standards. These standards will clean the air, especially in low income and black and brown communities. They will also create private sector certainty to invest in ZEV technologies, create economic benefits for fleets and the American public, fight climate change, and help insulate us from the oil and fuel price volatility created by foreign conflicts.
By directing the U.S. EPA to finalize the rule, Biden could deliver a major environmental victory and accelerate the national transition to zero emission transportation. Reducing demand for oil is one more weapon in our arsenal to combat inflation borne of wars created by petro-state dictators like Putin.