Comment Period About to Close on Hotly Debated Glider Provision Repeal

Comment Period About to Close on Hotly Debated Glider Provision Repeal

WASHINGTON Semi trucks with trailers full of potatoes pull out of Sandyland Farms in Howard City, Mich., on a weekly basis and drive to Ohio, where processors turn the crop into potato chips.

To the untrained eye, they’re just heavy, over the road trucks like any other on the highway. But to the Environmental Protection Agency, the trucking industry and clean air advocates, they represent a new front in the debate over government regulation. And this week happens to be a key week for deciding how and whether trucks like these can continue to be made and sold.

Sandyland uses «gliders,» or trucks made from old, rebuilt engines and new or repuposed transmissions that are paired with new frames and cabs. Gliders provide a cost efficient way to salvage old engines, often from a truck that was wrecked. Older engines are simpler and easier to repair because they lack computerized components. The vehicle prices can be 25% less than the sticker price of a new one, and taxes on the vehicles are lower, too.

These look like new trucks. They can have an engine life of 1 million miles before a major overhaul. Some even sport the name of a new truck or chassis maker such as Kenworth, Peterbilt or Freightliner, suggesting the strength, durability and status of a brand new diesel truck. But until now, they have only had to comply with emission rules for the year their engines were originally built.

This means that until this week, the old engines were exempt from modern, much more stringent pollution rules for new trucks. Gliders, say critics, contribute much more heavily to smog, lung disease and global warming.

President Barack Obama’s EPA aimed to change that, with a rule that took effect New Year’s Day. The rule says that if a glider maker assembles more than 300 trucks a year, the rebuilt engines on each subsequent truck must comply with emissions rules for new trucks that year.

This matters because many gliders use engines built between 1999 and 2002 or up to 2007, when emissions requirements for particulate matter started getting tougher. Rules for truck emissions such as nitrogen oxides, or NOx, toughened after 2010, when Obama announced a program of new standards for medium and heavy duty trucks. NOx contributes to smog and acid rain as well as particulate matter. It, too, can create serious respiratory problems.

Under subsequent Obama regulations announced in 2014, truck emissions rules for pollutants linked to global warming started ramping up even further, aiming to reach «ambitious yet achievable» levels from 2016 through 2027. But gliders were exempted until a late term Obama rule kicked in this week.

President Donald Trump’s EPA wants to go back to the old ways. It wants to rescind the glider rule.

If that happens, gliders once again will be covered by emission rules in place when the engines were first built. A retrofitted truck, the EPA now says, is not a new truck and should not have to comply with new truck pollution rules.

«The previous administration attempted to bend the rule of law and expand the reach of the federal government in a way that threatened to put an entire industry of specialized truck manufacturers out of business,» EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in November, announcing the proposed repeal. He has questioned both the scientific evidence for the EPA’s decision to regulate gliders as if they were new and the practical effects of the rule on small businesses and independent truck drivers.

«Gliders not only provide a more affordable option for smaller owners and operators, but also serve as a key economic driver to numerous rural communities,» Pruitt said.

How soon the EPA might reverse the rule is unclear, but there is urgency to do it or else glider makers will quickly be in limbo. As both sides send in public comments, which will only be accepted until Jan. 5, a window has opened on a slice of the trucking universe seldom noticed by the public.

And an unusual alliance has formed, the Lung Association’s Billings notes. New truck manufacturers, which have invested heavily to comply with emissions rules, agree with clean air advocates in an unusual display of unity: Gliders, which are cheaper than a new truck, should not get a special break on pollution.

Gliders run dirtier, this argument goes. They lack the safety components of newer trucks. The EPA tolerated them in limited numbers until now because they represented only a small slice of truck sales, and they helped people with wrecked trucks get back on the road. But they are increasingly seen as a cheap way to evade tougher and tougher emission rules, and their popularity could rise and give new truck makers and dealers stiffer and unfair competition.

The EPA under Obama had said that unless gliders are regulated, they could account for as much as 33% of total NOx emissions from all heavy duty on highway vehicles by 2025, representing an increasingly larger share of polluting trucks. This could impede the public health benefits of lower pollution levels from other vehicles, environmental health experts say.

Truck dealers have a related but different concern.

«I simply want a level playing field for fair competition in the heavy duty truck market,» Jason Watson, president of Northern Ohio Truck Center, wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Watson sells Mack trucks, and Mack doesn’t make its bodies available for glider retrofits, Watson said in a phone interview.

But he has seen previous Mack customers switch to gliders when it’s time to replace their old trucks, and this worries him. Gliders are no longer just the poor trucker’s means of survival.

«Based on the variety of sales we have lost, we cannot assume that the gliders are being purchased by consumers who cannot afford a new truck or are simply buying old trucks,» he told Pruitt.

Gliders are «less expensive to purchase than a new truck, creating a cost savings,» Young said. «Gliders are more fuel efficient. They are easier to repair; therefore, we can make the repairs at our shop without having to take to a dealer. In turn, having the ability to make our own repairs we have reduced our down time.»

Independent owner operators, who own their own trucks and subcontract with companies or hire out by the load, tend to agree.

Sean Forney, a Washington state based independent owner operator, explained why in a letter to the EPA.

«I support the repeal, mainly because I am getting ready to take my 2000 Volvo off the road by moving the motor and transmission to a Kenworth 660 glider kit,» he said. «By doing so I hope to gain an aerodynamic improvement as well as lowering maintenance by retiring my older chassis.

«Because of the cost associated with a new truck, I am not in a position to make a purchase of a 2018 model year truck,» he said. «I’ve invested considerable monies into my motor and transmission, and they are in great working order. If the repeal does not pass, I will have to keep my vehicle on the road in its current form and condition.»In a landmark $1 billion 1998 settlement with the EPA during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the nation’s largest diesel truck makers agreed to better police and restrict their emissions of nitrogen oxides. And as emissions and safety rules have grown tougher, truck manufacturers have generally kept up, although not always without chafing. Under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a rule began in December requiring that truck drivers use electronic logs that track the hours and miles driven, for example.

Trucks made before 2000 are exempt. That makes many gliders exempt, said Watson, of Northern Ohio Truck Center.

«So say I buy a new 2017 glider kit and I put my 1998 motor and transmission in it,» he said in a telephone interview. «I can now avoid electronic logs because my motor is a 1998. Now I have enabled myself to break the law again.»