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A new day for diesel

California environmental regulators’ science is sound and their policies are groundbreaking, but their timing is truly terrible. What else can you say about a group that is about to approve the most expensive environmental rules in state history even as the economy is melting down? Yet for all the short-term pain that the coming regulations on diesel trucks will cause, they will ultimately save far more than they cost.

The state Air Resources Board has been busy of late. On Thursday, it approved the “scoping plan” that lays out California’s strategy for cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, and today it’s expected to set the nation’s most restrictive rules on diesel engines. Older, dirtier trucks will be phased out over 12 years, so that by 2023 every truck on the road -- even those registered elsewhere but that cross California’s borders -- must meet emission standards for 2010 diesel engines. And to cut down on greenhouse gases, truckers will be forced to install fuel-efficient tires and aerodynamic devices on their trailers.

If all this sounds expensive, it will be. The air board estimates the cost at $5.5 billion, and truckers say it will be far higher. The state will offer $1 billion in subsidies to help them, but that won’t come close to covering the bills. Some small operators might be put out of business, and the price of consumer goods -- all those TVs and sneakers and groceries transported by truck -- will rise. But that ignores the economic gains.

When it comes to pollution, somebody always pays a price. Currently, the overwhelming majority of the costs are borne by the public. The air board estimates that the new rules will save 9,400 lives by 2025 and up to $68 billion in healthcare costs as cancer-causing emissions are reduced. Moreover, the fuel-efficiency requirements will ultimately save truckers money and help make up for the cost of the upgrades.

The American Trucking Assn. is expected to sue the state over the new rules, but it’s not likely to get far. California arguably has no choice but to crack down on trucks: Federal law requires the state to clean its air, and without the new rules it couldn’t meet national standards.

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We only wish officials at the Port of Los Angeles, which has passed a similar clean-truck plan, were as sensible as the air board; the port program requires truckers carrying its cargo to be employees of trucking fleets rather than independent contractors, a complication that could tie up the plan in court indefinitely. The port needs a separate truck plan because it has a separate mechanism for funding cleaner vehicles, but it would be better off imitating state regulators and focusing on cleaning the air, not trying to reinvent the steering wheel.


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