How Leftist Global Warming Policy Will Wreck Your Truck
I was talking with a friend the other day about canceled airline flights trying to get home to Montana from a vacation in Alaska and the seemingly unrelated topic of the high price of pickup trucks. The thought occurred to me that they are connected by way of another government-sponsored mass formation psychosis that's been building for the last five decades or so: global cooling, global warming, climate change, or whatever.
There's a pretty simple reason why trucks will continue to get more popular and expensive: federal regulations attempting to reduce the production of carbon dioxide (CO2) is forcing the elimination of fossil fuels in normal light-duty vehicles based on the flawed premise that CO2 is a pollutant.
First, a quick primer on automotive emissions regulation. The EPA has been regulating engine tailpipe pollutants under the Clean Air Act (CAA) since the early '70s. These gases are known as "criteria pollutants" in the industry and are actually pollutants in the strict sense of the word — harmful and unintended byproducts of imperfect combustion. From the beginning, there have been four of them relevant to vehicles: hydrocarbons (HC), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM).
Advances in engine technology have virtually eliminated these. Think about it: when was the last time you heard about someone locking himself in a garage to commit suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning (not that you should go out and try to prove it)? It's difficult to fill a garage with enough CO to do that with a properly running modern engine.
It's also important to note that the EPA's regulatory structure is quite demanding, with strictly defined caps and draconian enforcement protocols as well as fines that can be pretty much whatever amount the agency decides, with no right of appeal at all. It's also what is referred to as a "type approval" regulatory system that requires tremendous testing and reporting to the agency and getting formal certificates of approval from the agency before a single vehicle can leave the manufacturing plant's parking lot — not even to be loaded onto a train that's on a track that runs through that parking lot. Auto manufacturers tend to avoid messing with the EPA if at all possible because it would be very easy for the EPA to bankrupt a company if it felt like it.
The other relevant regulation comes out of the Department of Transportation, and it's a fuel economy regulation known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). Established in the mid-'70s, it requires that the average fuel economy of various segments of a manufacturer's cars and light trucks meet a particular number of miles per gallon (MPG). Compared to EPA regulations, this is a walk in the park. First, it's an average. If you want to sell high-margin, powerful luxury cars, you just need to basically give away a bunch of cheap little econoboxes. And then there's the problem of penalties. They're really cheap — set in the original law passed by Congress when it was established in the mid-'70s and never updated for inflation. Manufacturers can make the cost of the fines back up by charging customers an extra $10 or $20 on list prices of $40,000 or $50,000. And finally, it requires a manufacturer to tell the agency what it's sold after model year and send a check in for its fines, if any.
You'll notice that CO2 has yet to be mentioned. That's because it's never been a pollutant until recently. It's the stuff you exhale your entire life. It makes plants grow. It, along with water, is the desired outcome of all combustion. Moreover, the Earth's atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen — CO2 is only some of the stuff in between that. Not to put too fine a point on it, but CO2 is the stuff of life and, even more importantly, the stuff of a better life for everyone.
...until 2007, anyway. T hat was the year of the Supreme Court ruling in Massachusetts v. EPA, saying CO2 could be regulated as a pollutant under the CAA if the Bush administration couldn't give a good reason why it shouldn't be. The Obama administration declared in 2009, in one of its first acts, that there was no good reason and made it law — conveniently without legislative amendment to the CAA.
Now back to a little bit of simple high school chemistry. Burning a gallon of gasoline yields 18.7 pounds of CO2. Burning a gallon of diesel fuel yields 22.5 pounds of CO2. And those are the fossil fuels that produce the most energy per unit of any liquid fuel that flows (which is why we don't use coal in cars). Electricity does not produce energy; it is the energy that is produced. Therefore, it must be at a loss comparatively. The numbers I've seen from people who've done the calculations say as little as 5% of the energy that went into making electricity actually ends up doing useful work.
In normal light-duty cars and trucks, all emissions are regulated on a vehicle basis — either miles per gallon (mpg), with the DOT, or its mathematical inverse, grams per mile, with the EPA. Tightening those standards inevitably means that the vehicle becomes increasingly smaller and lighter — and useless for anything practical (carrying more than a small child and a baloney sandwich, for instance) — until you reach one divided by zero mpg when you suddenly slip into the realm of impossible numbers. But medium- and heavy-duty trucks, which are designed inherently to accomplish work, are regulated on an engine-only work output basis (grams per brake horsepower hour). They're also infinitely customizable in order to accommodate the machinery that can be added to them. And they're more expensive, but good tools that generate profit are worth it. You can remind yourself of that the next time you see somebody using a truck with an engine-driven crane putting a load of shingles on a roof or a trash truck compacting the garbage it collects or a semi-truck moving freight in a business with thin margins.
This has to date completely bumfuzzled the regulatory state. Congress mandated the creation of a similar CAFE-like program for medium- and heavy-duty trucks in a budget bill in 2008, but as far as I can tell, the DOT has not begun to implement it yet, and the EPA has yet to add CO2 regulation for those engines, either.
On the light-duty side, what was a 27.5 mpg DOT standard for cars and light trucks became an effectively 36 mpg equivalent EPA standard as the last thing President Obama did in the process of turning over the White House to President Trump, who promptly canceled that regulation (mostly because Obama's team had been extraordinarily sloppy in execution) and replaced it in 2020 with a more palatable 30 mpg equivalent EPA standard. President Biden just last month bumped the whole thing up to a 40 mpg equivalent EPA standard, to be implemented by 2026.
Truck people like trucks because of the variety of things you can do with them. And the more comfortable you can be doing it, the better. My current truck is an F150 crew cab, 4x4 with a 5.0L V8. It also has a 36-gallon fuel tank that can go 650 miles without refueling. If I needed to, I could fit five adults comfortably (six if they're family) with a bed full of scrap from a basement renovation while pulling a nice travel trailer to go camping in the mountains. And if I get stuck on a highway in a snowstorm the heat coming off the engine's cooling system will keep me warm for pretty much however long it takes to get going again. All that with leather heated and cooled seats, a navigation system, a really nice stereo, and even a 120 V A/C outlet for plugging in small tools or running their battery chargers.
So far, the effects of the Biden regulations for light-duty trucks like mine don't appear to be too harsh and mostly are just due to the "cap" nature of their rules. Also, a manufacturer gets reasonably healthy credits from electric vehicles like the new Ford Lightning to offset the penalties. But activists have already made it known quite loudly that they're not happy with the light treatment of those trucks and are demanding that they be tightened even more.
As I told my friend, trucks will only continue to get more luxurious and expensive as people who want to carry a few adults and a few sheets of plywood continue to be pushed out of smaller vehicles with less utility. In the end, the global warming hoax will be hoist with its own petard of impossible physics.
P.M. Lark is the pseudonym of an automotive engineering, manufacturing, and management professional with more than twenty years' experience in various related fields.