By Dave Cooke, Union of Concerned Scientists
In a particularly scary development, the EPA just proposed to repeal part of the recent regulations on heavy-duty vehicles. The proposal would affect “glider vehicles” and would reopen a loophole so big you could, well, drive a truck through it…leaving a ridiculously large cloud of pollution in its wake.
What the heck is a glider?
Glider vehicles are trucks that are built from a refurbished engine and a brand-new chassis (called a “glider kit”). They have been around for a long time and can serve a useful purpose—heavy-duty diesel engines are built to last hundreds of thousands of miles and are a significant part of the upfront cost of a vehicle, so if you crash your truck in the first couple years, it would be worth it to make sure you got the full lifetime use out of that powertrain.
The thing is, no one’s going joyriding in a semi—truck drivers are doing it for a living and generally try to take immaculate care of their vehicle, so one wouldn’t think these types of accidents are very frequent. In fact, up until recently, only a few hundred such gliders were sold in a given year.
Glider sales on the rise…
That all changed in the past couple years, when members of the glider cottage industry decided to exploit a loophole. In 2007 and 2010, EPA put into effect new pollution controls for heavy-duty vehicles which cut soot and smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 90 percent. However, because there is a menagerie of truck types and uses, those regulations are based on emissions tests of the engine, not the vehicle.
Fitzgerald, the leading assembler of glider vehicles, decided to make a few bucks by building a brand around assembling new glider vehicles with old, polluting engines that predate the EPA’s regulations and then selling the trucks as new vehicles. They and other glider assemblers even put out ads trying to increase the availability of these more polluting engines!
Glider vehicle assemblers typically offer the trucks at a significant discount compared to other new vehicles—it’s amazing at how much cheaper you can make a truck when you don’t care about how much pollution it’s spewing (about 25 percent cheaper, in fact). This is one of the major complaints from the rest of the industry—it isn’t a level playing field. In fact, most of the industry is opposed to glider vehicles.
…leads to a LOT of excess pollution
Of course, the public shouldn’t be too crazy about these trucks, either. Thanks to that “pollution discount” for not meeting modern emissions standards, glider vehicle sales have gone through the roof—just a few hundred glider vehicles were sold a decade ago, but industry sales are now up to about 10,000 vehicles…and perhaps still on the rise.
So just how bad is it? Virtually all of Fitzgerald’s vehicles are sold with a pre-2004 diesel engine. Those engines emit upwards of 10 to 20 times the amount of soot and smog forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) of a brand-new engine. By 2025, EPA’s own analysis shows that these gliders would be emitting about 300,000 tons of NOx and 8,000 tons of soot each year!
Putting that into perspective:
- That amount of NOx is about 10 times that of the VW Dieselgate scandal (to date)…all in a single year!
- These levels of NOx emissions would effectively cancel out the reductions in NOx made in passing EPA’s Tier 3 Emissions and Fuel Standards.
- Small in numbers but not impact—despite representing just 5 percent of the long-haul trucks on the road, by 2025 these glider vehicles would emit about 1/3 of all soot and NOx pollution from long-haul trucks.
- These excess emissions would have serious health impacts—if this loophole isn’t closed by 2025, these glider vehicles would result in up to 12,800 deaths that could have been prevented, not to mention countless additional emergency room visits and other health issues.
It’s also worth noting that the engines being put into these new trucks are engines that EPA had already previously found in non-compliance with the Clean Air Act because of the use of defeat devices. That’s right–not only do these engines not meet today’s emissions standards, but they didn’t even meet the emissions standards in place when they were originally manufactured!
In the most recent heavy-duty vehicle standards, the EPA wisely closed this loophole by requiring all new vehicles, including gliders, to have an engine that meets the same model-year standard as the vehicle itself. Recognizing the previous legitimate use of gliders, they even allowed a small-volume exemption for up to 300 vehicles, curbing the rampant exploitation of the loophole while still maintaining a volume that could keep companies like Fitzgerald in business.
Pruitt’s cronyism threatens public health
The EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is threatening to throw that all away by repealing the sections of the rule that closed the glider loophole. And he is doing so at the behest of Fitzgerald and Representative Diane Black (R-TN), who’s currently a candidate for the governor of Tennessee.
Rep. Black has tried unsuccessfully to restrict EPA from regulating glider kits via legislative action, willing to sacrifice public health because a few hundred jobs at Fitzgerald are in her district.
Fitzgerald’s owners met directly with Scott Pruitt in May. They also worked with Rep. Black and a couple smaller glider assembler to submit a petition with some seriously shoddy “evidence” collected by a third party, Tennessee Tech University. The thing is, TTU’s facilities are…in the Fitzgerald Industrial Park, paid for by Fitzgerald. Coincidentally I’m sure, these tests were taken and signed off by the head of the center paid for in part by Fitzgerald even before the public-private partnership between TTU and Fitzgerald was announced.
Lo and behold, after receiving the petition from Fitzgerald, Scott Pruitt announced that he would be re-examining the glider provisions of the heavy-duty regulations.
It isn’t clear who exactly benefits from all this backroom dealing (besides the small number of glider assemblers like Fitzgerald)—but it certainly isn’t the American public.
Pending internal review by the executive branch, this proposed repeal should be made available for public comment, so stay tuned as we continue to push back on Scott Pruitt’s ridiculous dismantling of public health protections—I’m sure UCS will be calling on you for your support.