Clean Trucks, Clean Emissions

On June 1, new standards for diesel fuel go into effect. The cleaner fuel will reduce sulfur emissions from trucks. Truckers are worried that the new fuel will be more expensive, at least at first. Truck engines have to meet new standards, too, but trucks built before the 2007 model year don't have to meet the new requirements, and truckers are rushing to dealerships, trying to get the old-style trucks before they disappear.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Diesel fuel in the U.S. and the fumes from diesel engines are about to get a whole lot cleaner. As of today, the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring much of the diesel in the country to have 97 percent less sulfur in it. It's the start of a project that will change not only diesel fuel, but the trucks, cars and eventually ships and trains that burn it.

NPR's Jeff Brady has the story.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

The EPA is requiring two things. The companies that make diesel fuel will have to reduce the amount of sulfur in that fuel to almost nothing and the manufacturers that make diesel engines will have to install new pollution control devices. Margo Oge, with the EPA, says once the project is fully implemented in three years, everyone will breathe easier.

Ms. MARGO OGE (Environmental Protection Agency): If you have ever driven behind a large truck or a bus, you're very familiar with the smell and the smoke and the clouds that come out from those, you know, trucks and buses. This is going to be a thing of the past.

BRADY: Oge says this is one of the most significant programs the EPA has undertaken. She says it's on par with the agency's program to eliminate lead from gasoline in the 1970s. That allowed carmakers to install catalytic converters, which have dramatically reduced vehicle pollution. In diesel engines, Oge says sulfur is just like lead.

Ms. OGE: Sulfur in diesel fuel poisons catalytic converters.

BRADY: With less sulfur in diesel, engine manufacturers will be able to put catalytic converters on those engines too. The EPA estimates the reduced pollution will prevent more than 8,000 premature deaths each year and reduce the incidence of breathing problems for asthma sufferers.

The European Union has been using low sulfur diesel for years, but within just a few months, the U.S. will have lower sulfur standards than what the EU requires. Charlie Drevna is with the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. He says it's not easy to meet the new EPA standards and he says it's costing the industry about 9 billion dollars.

Mr. CHARLIE DREVNA (National Petrochemical and Refiners Association): Not to get too technical, but when you get down to those ultra, ultra low levels of sulfur in the fuel, there are only a few molecules of sulfur left and the easy ones to take out are already gone and those three that are left in there, they just don't want to come out of the crude.

BRADY: The industry sued the EPA a few years back to block these standards. They wanted the level set a bit higher, but they lost in court. Refiners aren't the only ones that have to change the way they do business. Starting in 2007, truck manufacturers will have to put catalytic converters on their engines.

(Soundbite of diesel truck)

BRADY: Most truck drivers at a fueling stop near Denver said they didn't even know the rules were on the way. Scott Colon from Las Vegas says he learned about the rules from a sticker on a fuel pump. But he doesn't think it's fair that truckers are forced to comply with new regulations, while competitors are not.

Mr. SCOTT COLON (Truck driver): Well, I look at the ocean liner sitting out there at the dock, sitting there idling away with them big engines. Oh, that doesn't matter. On the locomotives you and I see everyday, you know, pumping diesel out of them. They haven't upgraded them yet, have they?

BRADY: That is true, but the EPA says their time is coming. New emission rules for diesel burning ships and trains are expected within the year. Still, truck drivers worry the new rules will push up diesel prices and that is a possibility. Companies that manage large fleets of trucks say they're also worried the supply of diesel might be interrupted as the new fuel is phased in over coming months.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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