Ambivalence about EPA

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
The ECOmax engine by JCB is one of the many engines built to meet Tier 4 Final emissions standards. Proposed EPA standards would emphasize increased fuel efficiency from certain diesel engines. (Photo courtesy JCB>)

You can't escape news about the Environmental Protection Agency. Farmers in particular have a lot to talk about regarding new regulations involving Waters of the United States and -- in this week's headlines -- the Chesapeake Bay. I'll let my astute DTN/The Progressive Farmer colleagues Todd Neeley and Chris Clayton deal with what seems to be an intended expansion of EPA authority over bodies of water on farmland and a court ruling that the agency can, indeed, set pollution control standards for runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. But I'd like to tackle the recent announcement about new fuel efficiency standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

Under the a joint proposal by EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, manufacturers will have to dramatically improve engine efficiency over the next 12 years, "in an effort to cut down fuel consumption and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions," according to the Washington Post. No target numbers were released, but the proposal would apply to some vehicles beginning in model year 2021 and be fully phased in by 2027. The announcement didn't say "nonroad" vehicles -- an EPA category into which farm equipment falls -- would be affected. But in the last round of emission standards, trucks came first, then nonroad vehicles. It is a safe assumption that your tractor one day will have to meet new efficiency standards.

Good thing or bad thing?

First, a quick review of recent vehicle emission/air pollution control history. Way back in 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act and ordered the EPA to create standards to reduce diesel emissions. Tier 1 was born. By 2014, all diesel engines of a certain size, including engines in farm equipment, met Tier 4 Final standards. Going got pretty rough for engine manufacturers and their R&D departments in the later Tiers as tolerance for particulates and nitrogen oxide got smaller and smaller.

Because their assigned goal was to reduce what came out of the tailpipe, engineers went through complex mechanical and chemical contortions to change the way large engines burn fuel and expelled byproducts. Fortunately for manufacturers, the crunch years of Intermediate Tier 4 and Tier 4 Final coincided with climbing commodity prices. Farmers could more afford to swallow the extra money manufacturers had to charge for the new emissions technologies. To make the high prices tags more palatable, manufacturers added an array of new comfort and productivity features to farm vehicles.

How much will new emissions standards -- if they are approved -- cost? Way too early to tell. But higher price tags almost certainly will be the "bad thing" farmers will face.

Could there be a good thing as a result of new fuel efficiency standards? Perhaps.

In March I talked to executives at JCB, the British tractor manufacturer. They were concerned at the time that European regulators were moving toward new clean air standards that would require even more engineering work-arounds to scrub the air coming out of exhaust pipes. A better way to clean the air, the JCB folks suggested, was to require higher fuel efficiency standards. Their elegant logic: less diesel burned means less pollutants in the air.

Under the old strategy of focusing what comes out of the exhaust pipe, end users (such as farmers) paid for a technology that helped the environment but didn't help their bottom lines, i.e. they saw no direct benefit. Under a fuel-efficiency-equals-better-air-quality strategy, farmers would see a direct benefit in the form of lower fuel bills.

Well, it looks like the EPA and NHTSA are onboard with that idea. Which, if it means higher initial equipment costs offset by lower fuel costs, could be a long-term good thing for farmers.


Jim Patrico