The demands of business versus the demands of the environment: It is a traditional tension, especially in California, the state with the largest economy in the U.S and arguably the country’s biggest pollution problem. Often, the small fleet operator is stuck in the middle. This is one of those times.

John Dutra is a one-man band, running his custom-upfit 1991 Isuzu FSR for construction work in the South Bay of San Francisco. Dutra couldn’t have known when he bought his truck so many years ago that today he’d be staring down a government mandate to (in all practicality) buy a cleaner truck.

Dutra’s issue is a result of California rules drafted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) that came into effect this year, mandating that 20-year-old and older diesel vehicles comply with 2010 engine standards. The rules were formulated in 2008, though public comment since then has led to various exceptions and extensions. Like taxes, this is a good thing for those who can take advantage. But simply trying to figure them out is no easy task.

Large companies have staff charged with compliance, but the single operator does not have this luxury. Dutra says he receives postcard updates from CARB, but it’s nonetheless hard to keep up. So when he read my previous blog on the subject, which reported that fleets have until Jan. 31 to file for “flexibility options,” he knew he needed to act fast.

Dutra was specifically looking into relief for medium-duty trucks (his Isuzu rates 22,500 lbs. GVWR). His initial call to CARB yielded contradictory information to what he’d read. He reached out to me, and I reached out to CARB, connecting the two on a conference call. This is where it got interesting.

On the call, Dutra found out he would indeed need to take expensive action. If he registered on the CARB website by Jan. 31, he would have until Dec. 31, 2015 to either install a diesel particulate filter (DPF) in his present truck or buy a truck with a compliant engine. Installing a DPF is expensive — especially for a medium-duty truck — to the extent that in many cases it makes sense to just buy a newer truck.

If he did nothing, he’d be out of compliance.

Beth White, the manager that oversees the implementation of the truck and bus regulations for CARB, graciously took the call. CARB is no stranger to irate operators when it comes to regulations that ding the pocketbooks.

“We’ve been in a Recession, and then they say, spend $20,000? Where am I going to get the money? Should I mortgage my house for a bright shiny new truck?” said Dutra, with what might be described as wounded sarcasm.

White replied that the extensions were designed to ease that burden.

“Cars have not been forced to retrofit their smog equipment, and there are certainly more cars than trucks in California,” Dutra said. “Why are they picking on trucks, in an industry that has been suffering greatly since 2007?”

“Gasoline is cleaner than diesel,” White replied. “Diesel trucks last a really long time, and the older they are, the dirtier they are.” White cited the statistic that 70% of the cancer risk from air toxics is related to diesel particulate matter.

“What right does CARB have to ask more of California citizens than the federal government?” Dutra said.

“Because we have the worst air pollution in the nation,” replied White, adding that CARB indeed has the regulatory authority to go above and beyond federal requirements, but it does so to comply with the federal clean air attainment standards. If the state does not meet those standards, it risks losing federal highway funds. “This isn’t arbitrary; it’s not us trying to torture our business owners,” White said.

(Later, CARB turned me onto this rather cheesy video explaining air quality in California. The video backs up the fact that California’s air is much cleaner than it was in the past — as a direct result of legislation to control emissions.)

“But it still comes back to me buying a filter or buying another truck,” Dutra said.

White discussed solutions with Dutra. He could buy a truck with a 2007 engine, though he’d need to upgrade to a 2010 engine by 2023. “But if you buy a truck with a 2010 engine now, you’d be fully compliant,” she said, “and you wouldn’t have to do anything, ever.”

“Ever?” he chuckled, no doubt wondering when new regulations might be drawn.

When it comes to the moving target of regulations and the small business owner, there are no easy answers.

Originally posted on Business Fleet

About the author
Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Associate Publisher

As associate publisher of Automotive Fleet, Auto Rental News, and Fleet Forward, Chris Brown covers all aspects of fleets, transportation, and mobility.

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