WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Monday took its first step toward tighter pollution controls on trucks, an anomalous move for a government known for weakening environmental policies but one that would pre-empt tougher state rules.
Andrew Wheeler, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, began the legal and regulatory process for curbing highway emissions of nitrogen dioxide, which has been linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases.
While the move could give President Trump a nominal environmental achievement for the 2020 campaign, public health experts say the truck regulations are not as out of line with administration policy as they would appear. The emerging rule will quite likely limit nitrogen dioxide pollution more than current standards, they say, but fall far short of what is necessary to significantly prevent respiratory illness and even premature deaths.
Instead, the administration appears to be complying with the wishes of the trucking industry, which has called for a new national nitrogen dioxide regulation to override states that could otherwise implement their own, tighter rules. On that front, the E.P.A. rule is likely to open a new battle in Mr. Trump’s long-running war with California over environmental regulations and states’ rights. California is already moving ahead with state-level standards on nitrogen dioxide pollution that could be replicated by other states.
“A strong and resilient trucking industry is imperative to maintaining a strong and resilient economy,” Mr. Wheeler said Monday morning at a livestock exchange in Marshall, Va., surrounded by leaders of the trucking lobby. “Through this initiative, we will modernize heavy duty truck engines, improving their efficiency and reducing their emissions, which will lead to a healthier environment.”
Paul Billings, a senior vice president at the American Lung Association, said no one from his group or other major health or environmental groups had been invited to the event, although the Lung Association has led the lobbying push to limit nitrogen dioxide from trucks.
“Trucks remain a major source of pollution that creates smog, and smog is linked with coughing, wheezing shortness of breath, and can cause asthma and premature death,” he said.
The opening of the regulatory process is in keeping with Mr. Trump’s efforts to walk a fine line on the environment. Polls show that independent voters in their 20s and 30s are increasingly concerned about environmental issues, and even as the president celebrates his rollbacks of environmental rules, he has insisted that he believes in a clean environment, frequently citing his desire for “crystal-clean air and water.”
The E.P.A.’s current rule on nitrogen dioxide pollution from heavy-duty highway trucks, put in place in 2001, required trucks to cut emissions of nitrogen dioxide by 95 percent over 10 years. The rule contributed to a 40-percent drop in national nitrogen dioxide emissions.
Although the law does not require the agency to update the rule, the Obama administration’s E.P.A. began examining a tighter standard after multiple states and public health organizations like the American Lung Association petitioned to cut emissions an additional 90 percent by about 2025.
Over the past two years, California has begun the legal process aimed at making such cuts. That prompted the trucking industry to lobby the E.P.A. to move forward with a new rule that would be much looser, imposing emissions cuts of 25 percent to 50 percent.
The legal step taken Monday by the E.P.A. will begin the drafting of such rules, by requesting public comments and input from states, industry groups and health and environmental advocates.
Trucking industry leaders said they were confident that their concerns would be taken into account.
“Serious problems with earlier rule-makings have left small business truckers justifiably wary of new emissions reduction proposals,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a lobbying group. “However, over the last year, representatives of the E.P.A. have gone to great lengths to fully understand how new policies may affect our members, which wasn’t standard practice under previous administrations.”
The fact that the 2001 rule to curb emissions by 95 percent still allows trucks to emit harmful levels of the pollutant “speaks to how dirty trucks were before this rule,” Mr. Billings of the Lung Association said. “Now it’s 20 years later. Technology has improved. People are still getting sick. We can do better.”
Although his group was not invited to Monday’s announcement, Mr. Billings said, “We’d welcome the opportunity to work with the agency to see that the strongest, most health-protective rule is adopted.”
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