How Natural Gas Trucks Can Help Clean Up Utah’s Air

Truck transport is crucial to Utah. Heavy-duty trucks keep our economy humming, especially with increased on-line shopping. A booming economy means more trucks on the highways — and that’s good. But as part of our broader effort to improve Utah’s air quality, we need to help the trucking industry reduce emissions so we can all breathe easier.

Recent studies show that vehicles produce about half of the emissions that pollute Utah’s air during winter inversions. Heavy-duty trucks, with their large engines and long hours on the road, contribute a significant, and growing, share of the polluting emissions.

Advances in clean diesel technology, tires, and advanced aerodynamics have significantly improved fuel efficiency of heavy trucks. Those technologies and their impact on air quality are significant, and Utah is in a unique position to go a step further by using cleaner, cheaper, locally-sourced natural gas as a truck fuel.

Thankfully, Utah is home to a robust natural gas industry, and recent improvements in engine technology allow operators to purchase heavy-duty trucks with engines that run on clean and efficient natural gas, produced right here in Utah.

But we need modest incentives to encourage trucking companies to use natural gas. These technologies are new, and increased capital costs for the purchase of new natural gas engines are a significant barrier.

In the current legislative session, I am proposing modest incentives to jump-start widespread use of natural gas engines in heavy-duty trucks. We already have an income tax credit for smaller alternative fuel vehicles, but not for large trucks – where we can have the greatest impact on air quality.

Under my legislation, HB406, these incentives will be phased out as the industry matures. HB406 would also incrementally increase the currently discounted tax paid for natural gas purchased as a transportation fuel, to make it equivalent to highway taxes paid on gasoline and diesel. We must maintain our roads, and the trucking industry needs to pay its fair share, whatever fuel is used.

Will a package of incentives be effective in encouraging trucking companies to convert to natural gas? Evidence in other states suggests that it will. Trucking firms are converting to natural gas in states that offer incentives. Todd Thornley, president of Dairy Way Transport in Tremonton, Utah, told me that incentives are especially important for medium and small trucking companies that don’t have the financial resources of the large national firms. “We want to move more to natural gas, but the capital investment is really high,” he said. The Utah Trucking Association supports this legislation.

Natural gas trucks can have a big impact on air quality. A recent Wall Street Journal article notes that a small fleet of 24 Ford F650 natural gas tow trucks owned by a Texas towing firm replaces more gasoline than 700 Chevy Volt electric vehicles. Just one tow truck saves more gasoline than 20 Nissan Leaf electric cars. The big natural gas trucks reduce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants. 

In the transportation industry, the heavy-duty work truck segment drives the most miles, operates the biggest vehicles, and burns the most fuel. Medium- and heavy-duty trucks comprise only 4 percent of the total vehicles on the road, but account for 20 percent of the fuel consumed and 20 percent of the greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted by the transportation sector. Converting big-truck fleets to natural gas will improve the environment and unlock the economic and environmental benefits of Utah’s natural gas boom.

“When it comes to reducing oil dependence, pollution and fuel cost, the transition of America’s truck fleet to natural gas is the hands-down winner,” said the Wall Street Journal article.

A recent poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, found that 72 percent of Utahns support an incentive program to encourage conversion of large truck fleets to natural gas.

We can improve Utah’s air quality, but it will take action on a number of fronts to do so. Reducing emissions from heavy-duty trucks is an important part of the clean-air package.