Residents of metro Los Angeles woke up this week to what unfortunately has become all too regular news. Once again, the air we breathe was rated by the American Lung Association as the dirtiest and most ozone-polluted in the country. This news was not lost on those of us who have been advocating for a solution for many years. However, due to technological advancements a solution that might be surprising to many is readily available today.
It’s no secret that the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that move throughout Southern California continue to be the largest source of this problem, and heavy-duty trucks, 99 percent of which operate on diesel, are the worst offenders. Diesel is the dirtiest fuel and produces over 50 percent of the smog-causing nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in the United States. Moreover, trucking alone produces more than 25 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and many studies show that the air pollution from diesel causes cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and disease. That is why many cities around the world have set dates to ban the use of diesel.
The trucking industry is essential to the high quality of life Californians enjoy and is a significant contributor to our area’s economy. A win-win solution for fleets to continue to economically deliver the goods that we all need and enjoy, and drive dramatically cleaner trucks, has recently been introduced.
Natural gas trucks — a cleaner transport option
A new natural gas engine technology that achieves the lowest emissions levels in the country yet delivers diesel-caliber performance was rolled out earlier this year. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board certified these natural gas engines at the optional low NOx standard, because they feature 90 percent lower emissions than the current EPA NOx standard. In fact, these new engines were tested at 0.01 grams per brake horsepower-hour — achieving virtually zero tailpipe emissions.
Another technological advancement now available to these trucks is renewable natural gas (RNG). RNG is made entirely from organic waste and reduces greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 70 percent compared with diesel, making it the cleanest fuel in North America. RNG is now available in dozens of fueling stations around Southern California.
Operating large vehicles on RNG isn’t a strange, far-off idea. Santa Monica switched to RNG several years ago to fuel its Big Blue Bus fleet and has recently begun to phase in the new natural gas engine technology as the transit system buys new buses. LA Metro also made the switch to RNG for its thousands of buses.
California has never backed down when making tough decisions to adopt the latest technology to address our serious air quality issue. That is why it is frustrating that the air in Los Angeles and other Californian cities continues to be the worst in the country. State and local officials should not back down now to embrace a solution that is here today. Some are pinning hopes on future technologies such as a heavy-duty truck that can operate on electricity. But those technologies are years away and could be so costly, the average truck operator could never afford it. A recent study of alternative fuel vehicle technology concluded that natural gas heavy-duty vehicles fueled by renewable natural gas, and using the most current engine technology, performed equivalent to electric vehicles powered by the current grid with respect to GHG emissions.
Our officials should be doing everything possible to encourage the adoption of the new RNG engines by heavy-duty trucks that achieve zero emissions — today. Let’s not go another year achieving the unenviable label as the city with “the dirtiest air in the country.”