• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Truckers head westbound on Interstate 70 in Aurora, bound for Denver, in 2020. Medium and heavy truck traffic is a big contributor to greenhouse gas and ozone pollution, and environmental groups want Colorado officials to move even faster to mandate companies and fleets switch to cleaner electric or hydrogen-fueled vehicles. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado pollution regulators now say they won’t finish long-anticipated clean truck rules until 2023, prompting cries of betrayal by environmental groups that say acting now is vital to cutting greenhouse gas and ozone-causing emissions that harm impacted communities.

Key groups included by law in energy transition rulemaking said they’d been assured the rules for cleaning up the massive truck sector would be done this year, as part of Colorado laws committing to cut greenhouse emissions 50% by 2030. 

Instead, staff at state agencies prepared materials for Thursday’s Air Quality Control Commission monthly meeting announcing a 2023 target for the truck rules, and told environmental justice groups of the delays in bitter phone consultations this month. The most restrictive form of clean truck rules already passed by California mandate that a certain percentage of new trucks sold produce zero emissions, either through electric engines or engines powered by hydrogen fuel cells. 

“Aggressive action to clean the air has been put off too long, and any delay in adopting rules means more harmful pollution especially for Black and Brown families,” said a release by a coalition in talks with the state that includes Colorado GreenLatinos, the NAACP, Mi Familia Vota and more. 

There are a half-million medium to heavy duty trucks on the roads in Colorado, including everything from step-in package delivery trucks, to garbage haulers, to semi-trailers, to utility fleets. Many are diesel powered, and have an outsize impact on pollution because they may each travel hundreds of miles a day and have engines running 8 to 10 hours at a time. 

Their emissions are also concentrated in the warehouse and industrial neighborhoods where lower-income residents can afford housing, and which are surrounded by heavily trafficked interstates and other delivery roads. North Denver and Commerce City, for example, also face daily pollution from the Suncor petroleum refinery and the Cherokee power plant, two of the larger industrial emitters in the state. 

“Our communities are always told we just have to wait for environmental justice, to wait for action that will improve the health of our families and children, to wait because the burden on others would be too great,” the environmental justice coalition’s statement said. 

The Colorado Energy Office said in a statement that finishing the so-called Advanced Clean Truck rules in 2022 was only a placeholder on the Air Quality Control Commission calendar, and that the state’s commitment to a clean fuel transition for trucks was unchanged. 

“The biggest impact we can have in the short-term on getting clean trucks and buses onto the roads is moving quickly to enact plans for fleet incentives for clean trucks and buses, for charging infrastructure to support the transition, and to move on the governor’s proposals to the legislature for large scale investments to transition to electric school buses,” the energy office said in response to questions about finishing the clean truck mandates in 2023.

The energy office and health department told environmental stakeholders on a call this week that they want more time to include environmental justice activists, and to allow trucking industry supply chain issues to ease so that companies have more time to help with the rules and buy clean trucks. 

Those justice groups respond that they are all engaged — most were right there on the call — and that what their constituents have already said they want is for Colorado to adopt California-style clean truck rules immediately, as officials had promised to do. 

Truckers say equipment not ready

Trucking trade groups say they want to help work on emissions, but they back the state’s argument that supply delays and lack of cleaner models dampen the possibility of any real change from clean truck rules anytime soon.

“I have folks who have basically paid full price for a Tesla tractor three years ago and haven’t gotten it, and they get an email saying it’s going to be 2023,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. Colorado carriers have new, cleaner-burning truck models on their lots that can’t be put on the road yet because, ironically, the computer chips for emissions sensing are hard to get, he said.

Medium and heavy trucks are only 10% of vehicles on the road, but make up nearly 25% of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, state statistics say. In addition to the climate change gasses, local vehicle traffic contributes nitrogen oxide and particulate matter that contribute to the ozone stew, and the northern Front Range is about to be reclassified by the EPA as a “severe” violator of ozone limits

The entire environmental coalition seeking transportation limits was offended by the state wanting more input from justice groups, when all those groups “were telling you we want this done now, we’ve been talking about this for more than a year,” said Aaron Kressig, transportation electrification manager for Western Resource Advocates.

“The administration wants to move as fast as they can with a thoughtful approach to clean trucking, and with a pandemic-induced challenge in the global supply chain impacting the daily lives of people, it is not the time to cast these types of misguided assertions,” the energy office statement said. 

“The administration’s timeline is as aggressive as possible to get it right, and what’s come into focus is that we need to get the investment plans for the transportation electrification enterprises in place and to quickly pass the Governor’s clean air package, which includes a clean trucking component in order to set up the most robust rule-making possible,” said Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis

If the Air Quality Control Commissioners do not urge state staff to move at a faster pace on the clean truck rules, an environmental coalition will seek to force a faster rulemaking through a petition process, said Ean Tafoya, director of Colorado GreenLatinos. A similar coalition pushed for and won a similar speed-up at the Water Quality Control Commission last year over considering increased protections for the South Platte River and Clear Creek.

The California clean truck rules Colorado and other states are using as models primarily require manufacturers of truck equipment to sell an increasing percentage of cleaner vehicles each year. Those will initially be electric vehicles, but manufacturers are also working on hydrogen fuel cell models that can haul bigger loads for longer distances. Colorado in 2019 passed a similar mandate for manufacturers of passenger vehicles to sell more zero emission vehicles each year, which officials say has helped boost EV sales above other states.

To prepare for the mandates, Colorado will also have to speed up construction of an electric charging infrastructure for both passenger cars and the trucking industry. School buses are one of the first truck categories already producing market-ready electric models, and Polis’ 2022-23 budget proposal includes big spending to help local districts acquire them. 

Environmental groups said they see the Polis administration once again moving slowly on greenhouse gases instead of taking public cues to move quickly. They claim the same thing happened last summer, when the Air Pollution Control Division readied rules for pushing large employers to cut commuting-related emissions. Business and trade groups pushed back hard, and the trip proposal was dropped. 

“There’s every indication that there’s going to be something done on the transportation sector to make progress toward our goals on the greenhouse gas roadmap, and then there’s an inexplicable delay,” Kressig said. 

The supply of clean energy trucking substitutes is so limited, the motor carriers’ Fulton said, that the state may want to focus more on retiring older, dirtier diesels. Helping a small trucking company replace a pre-2000 diesel model, even with a used but more recent truck, can sharply cut emissions for the same trips, he said. 

“And those are going to benefit the economically disadvantaged areas, because a lot of those little companies are owner-operators that are actually based in those areas,” Fulton said. 

Polis and his staff have talked about a buyback program for the dirtiest trucks on the road, but the number of vehicles they have mentioned retiring is about 500. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...