Senate Fuel-Economy Bill Could Boost Weights

WASHINGTON — Legislation proposed last week could allow federal weight limits for trucks to rise to 97,000 pounds and for the first time set fuel-efficiency standards for trucks.

In addition, the bill — which Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) introduced in the Senate March 14 — calls for accelerated development of alternative energy sources, including biodiesel, and expanded natural gas and domestic oil production.

Heavier trucks on the nation’s roads would mean “fuel savings because those trucks would be more fuel efficient,” said Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt. “The savings would come from the fact that the trucks are more fuel efficient and because there would be fewer trucks needed.”

“If we want to continue to be a world leader in the national economy, we will have to challenge ourselves on greater energy independence,” Craig said.

“We need to be at war with relation to energy security.” “American Trucking Associations has always looked forward to an open and honest discussion on the merits of size and weight,” said Tim Lynch, vice president of federation relations and strategic planning for ATA, when asked to comment on the bill. “ATA looks forward to the potential to start that dialogue,” Lynch said.

Meanwhile, Randy Mullett, vice president of Con-way Freight, said, “This points us to a different political solution we haven’t seen before to address efficiency” in the trucking industry.

Piatt said truck weight was addressed specifically in the bill “to help move us toward greater fuel efficiency, as part of a comprehensive package of incentives, policy measures and mandates across the energy spectrum.”

The measure “could help reduce the number of trucks needed to transport freight by allowing them to carry more” weight, Piatt said. “It is clear that greater fuel efficiency can be achieved, even with increased freight loads.”

“This bill allows us to see that increasing productivity can help with fuel efficiency,” Mullett said. “If we can haul more weight . . . [trucks] are more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly.”

The bill is based on policy proposals by the Energy Security Leadership Council, a 15-member group of industry executives and retired military officials co-chaired by FedEx Corp. Chairman Fred Smith and Gen. P.X. Kelley, former commandant of the Marine Corps.

The legislation would direct DOT to examine the effect of heavier trucks on traffic and to raise the limits from 80,000 to 97,000 pounds, if DOT found that it wouldn’t “have a material impact on highway safety.”

It also requires a 4% annual increase in fuel economy standards for Class 8 trucks and passenger cars, beginning in model year 2012 and ending in 2030. According to the proposed legislation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would be responsible for setting fuel economy standards for each class of automobile, but would have the authority to allow a lower percentage increase “if it is determined that a 4% increase is technologically not achievable, creates material safety concerns, or is not cost-effective.”

Robbie Diamond, president of Securing America’s Future Energy, an energy security advocacy group, said a fuel-efficiency baseline would be set for heavy-duty trucks by an independent testing group before the 4% increase would take effect.

Diamond said his group was responsible for assembling the members of the Energy Security Leadership Council. David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management Inc. and a member of the energy security council, said the bill “sets fuel-economy standards for trucks for the first time ever,” a move that “will affect our bottom lines” as an industry.

“If we can use less fuel, it will be better for the country, the trucking industry and the environment long term,” he said. Other council members are Mike Eskew, CEO of UPS; top executives of Dow Chemical and Southwest Airlines; a former Air Force chief of staff; and a former naval secretary.

The group met in December to lobby Congress for stronger fuel- efficiency standards and substantial financial incentives to encourage the production and purchase of more efficient vehicles, an effort Steiner said paid off with the introduction of last week’s bill.

After that meeting, FedEx’s Smith told Transport Topics, “If our recommendations are enacted into law, they could dramatically reduce the potential for great economic dislocation,” because of an interruption in U.S. oil supply (12-18, p. 3). Increasing truck weight would also “remove a competitive disadvantage” U.S. truckers face, by establishing weight limits that are in line with limits in other countries, Mullett said.

“This would certainly improve our competitiveness in the world market,” Mullett said. “We have lower size and weight limits than our NAFTA partners and European countries.” Canada allows up to 138,000-pound vehicles and Europe up to 110,000-pound vehicles.

Besides increased fuel-efficiency standards, the Dorgan-Craig bill would authorize $500 million in tax credits, direct grants and loans to commercialize the biofuels industry, and would require the Secretary of Energy to “submit a report to Congress” on efforts to displace 5% diesel with biodiesel nationwide.