After a lot of political maneuvering that included a filibuster and threats of a Presidential veto, we finally got a “slimmed down” energy bill that's only 822 pages long. After passing through the meat grinder we call the federal legislative process, many believe the new legislation is most notable for what it no longer contains — incentives to boost widespread use of renewable fuels and the end of tax breaks for oil companies to pay for those incentives. Proponents of incentives will certainly raise the issue again in the coming months.

The most significant element left in the bill is a requirement that cars and light trucks under 10,000 lb. GVW begin improving their corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) starting in 2011 and reach 35 mpg by 2020. If you think that means they've ignored or overlooked commercial trucking, think again.

Although it only received a glancing mention in most of the general news coverage, the new energy law directly addresses fuel economy standards for what it terms “medium and heavy work trucks,” that is, anything over 10,000 lb. GVW. It also appears to create a new class of vehicle it calls a “work truck,” which the law defines as any non-passenger vehicle with a GVW between 8,500 and 10,000 lb. Both classes of commercial vehicles can expect to see their own set of fuel economy standards as soon as 2016.

Early versions of the bill actually proposed CAFE standards for trucks, but fortunately reason won out over political posturing, and the new legislation doesn't set hard and fast numbers, as it does for light vehicles. Instead, it requires that the Depts. of Transportation and Energy join EPA to devise “appropriate test procedures” for measuring truck fuel efficiency. Specifically, those tests must take into consideration duty cycles, truck design limitations, the variety of truck applications and overall operating costs.

Within one year of completing the study, DOE and EPA are required to issue rules setting fuel economy standards “that are appropriate, cost-effective and technologically feasible for commercial medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and work trucks.” It also gives the Sec. of Energy the flexibility to set separate standards for what it calls “different classes of vehicles.”

While the language seems reasonable, remember what regulators deemed “technologically feasible” when it came to truck engine emissions — technology they felt could be developed if they provided the incentive with requirements that went far beyond the current state of the art. Similarly, their idea of cost-effective easily encompassed many thousands of dollars per vehicle in both initial price and ongoing operating costs.

The bill should also lead to federal moves on limiting carbon emissions from both stationary and mobile sources. So on one hand you have emissions requirements — both established and new — putting pressure on current truck fuel economy. On the other, a requirement that trucks improve that fuel consumption by some as yet undetermined amount. It's going to be interesting to see just what government regulators consider reasonable as they try to balance these conflicting goals.

At this point, though, only one thing is certain — truck fuel economy has not been ignored by our new energy legislation.


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