On Tuesday, Feb. 26, the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee held a hearing to address infrastructure issues pertaining to climate change. The issue of climate change turned the historically bipartisan committee into a debate with Democrats and Republicans regarding the role of government, especially as it pertains to transitioning fleets to electric and alternative fuels.
House Transportation and Infrastructure committee members heard testimony from several experts during a hearing titled “Examining How Federal Infrastructure Policy Could Help Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change.” The purpose of the hearing was to examine the role the transportation sector plays in global warming and learn from those in the public and private sectors that have demonstrated pragmatic solutions for reducing carbon emissions and building resilient infrastructure.
- Daniel Sperling, California Air Resources Board member.
- Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.
- Thomas P. Lyon of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
- Ben Prochazka, vice president of the Electrification Coalition.
- Nancy Young, vice president for environmental affairs for Airlines for America.
Government intervention vs. market-based measures
Although the committee has generally agreed on many infrastructure issues, including looking into a vehicle miles traveled tax and other funding mechanisms, Democrats and Republicans were at odds over how much, if at all, the federal government should get involved in issues related to climate change.
Most Republicans on the committee questioned whether or not the government should mandate certain timelines and goals for emissions and alternative fuels, claiming the free market already does a good job creating cleaner energy.
“In fact, it’s the private sector that’s responding to industry-driven and consumer-driven market demands for cleaner energy and cleaner technology,” said ranking member Sam Graves, R-Mo. “As a result, we continue to have more fuel-efficient cars, trains, trucks, aircrafts and developed cleaner alternative fuels.”
As an example, Young of Airlines for America pointed out that from 1978 to 2017, U.S. airlines improved their fuel efficiency by more than 125 percent. Airlines had no federal mandate to reach that goal. Since fuel accounts for the largest overhead costs, it behooves companies to search for the cheapest fuel options possible.
Lyon echoed that sentiment in his written statements.
“Market-based instruments allow for innovation and flexibility on the part of the private sector,” he wrote.
This is especially true in the heavy truck market, which relies on diesel, Lyon said. Cummins and Tesla are producing electric trucks, and others are developing natural gas trucks without mandates.
However, Lyon said that both government and private sector market-driven motivations are needed. In fact, that was the common belief among most of the witnesses and committee members: government should jump-start certain initiatives and then let the private sector take over.
Electrification of the U.S. fleet
Alternative fuels were discussed during the hearing, but electrification of vehicles was a focus of the conversation.
In her written statement, Arroyo of the Georgetown Climate Center said switching to electric vehicles significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions even when emissions from power plants that generate the electricity for those vehicles are included.
“Eventually – and perhaps within the next decade – electric vehicles will be cheaper to buy and to drive than gas vehicles,” Arroyo said. “However, as is the case with many new technologies, public sector support through research, early deployment, and infrastructure installation will be vital to enabling this market to grow.”
Sperling agreed, saying small electric vehicles are competing with traditional vehicles. However, the savings is operational costs over time, not upfront costs, which is how people make decisions. With that said, the government needs to continue giving incentives until upfront costs of electric vehicles at least match traditional vehicles.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., was more skeptical about electrification for trucks. LaMalfa mentioned the California Air Resource Board’s effects on the trucking industry. More specifically, owner-operators have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on diesel particulate filters, which have been known to catch fire, costing more money in damages.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., also pointed out that electric trucks are being made without government intervention. Davis asked why we need the government to get involved. Young responded by saying government interference with market-based measure can end in negative result.
Prochazka of the Electrification Coalition, however, said the because of an unfair and unfree oil market, incentives are needed for electric vehicle adoption. Prochazka claims that electrification will help businesses when oil prices spike due to the cartel activity of OPEC.
Arroyo said that decarbonizing truck transport will be critical to meeting state and national climate commitments. A number of low- or zero-emission vehicle and fuel types may serve different uses, including electric, natural gas and propane.
“One critical challenge for both of these zero-emission technology types is the development of sufficient charging or fueling infrastructure along highway corridors,” Arroyo said.
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