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EPA looks to tighten truck air pollution standards

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler will announce today his plans to review — and likely make more stringent — air pollution standards for heavy-duty trucks.

Why it matters: This is the first time the EPA under President Trump is looking to significantly tighten — not loosen — air pollution regulations. Most of EPA's focus for the last nearly two years has been to roll back environmental rules issued by then-President Barack Obama.

Driving the news: Wheeler will announce his intent to tighten regulations limiting nitrogen oxide emissions from big trucks. Nitrogen oxide is a pollutant that contributes to smog and poor air quality. The current standards haven't been reviewed since 2001. Today's news is not a formal rule-making step, and EPA officials say the proposal isn’t expected until early 2020, with a final by the end of that year — right after the next presidential campaign.

Yes, but: Wheeler and Bill Wehrum, the EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, said they don’t yet have a specific target in mind for the new standards and may be able to cut pollution without increasing the standard itself.

  • "One thing we know is these types of vehicles can be made cleaner, lower emitting," Wehrum said. He went on to say that the rules could be changed in a way that lowers emissions without actually lowering the standard. He added that the agency would "definitely look to see if the numbers need to come down."

One level deeper: This is an example of industry wanting the EPA to update a standard when they have an administration friendlier to their position than, say, an EPA under President Hillary Clinton might have been.

  • Wehrum said he’s met with many industry groups and companies, saying, "What we have consistently heard, is they think it’s time for an update."
  • State air agencies had asked Obama's EPA to lower the standard, and the agency said it would in late 2016, right after Trump's victory.

The big picture: Expect this rule to be the exception, not the new norm, of an agency still primarily focused on rolling back the aggressive regulatory agenda of the last president.

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