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Could Obama and Calderón agreement on cross-border trucking lead to cleaner and more efficient vehicles in Mexico?

Rich Kassel

Posted March 3, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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According to Forbes and other reports, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón have reached an agreement on resolving the two nations’ long-standing dispute over cross-border trucking.  The two presidents met in Washington today, and supposedly agreed to a phased-in plan that would authorize both Mexican and U.S. long-haul carriers to move goods in both countries, provided the Mexican trucks meet U.S. safety standards.

With any luck, this will close a dispute that has lasted for several years.

What should come next?

A great next step would be for Mexico to adopt a package of fuel economy and emissions standards that will bring its vehicle market into harmony with the vehicles sold throughout the rest of the NAFTA zone.  Doing so would save fuel costs for Mexico’s businesses and consumers, and it would be great for Mexicans who currently breathe high levels of diesel pollution, thanks to Mexico’s less-stringent emission standards.  

A bit of background:

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted a regulation that reduced sulfur in highway diesel fuel by 97 percent (the so-called ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, or “ULSD”), starting in the fall of 2006, and that introduced new engine standards to slash emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides by more than 90 percent, starting with the 2007 model year. 

USLD was the key to achieving the emissions goals of this regulation—because advanced diesel emission control technologies require ULSD to operate effectively.

In 2004, NRDC joined Nobel Laureate Mario Molina and a team of Mexican and international vehicle pollution experts to create a 10-year plan for clean air in Mexico’s cities.  A key recommendation was that Mexico should adopt fuel and emissions standards that would be comparable to the EPA standards.  Doing so, our team concluded, would save at least 4,000 premature deaths in Mexico City every year—and bring even more benefits nationwide.

In 2006, SEMARNAT (Mexico’s environmental agency) adopted part of this recommendation—it adopted a regulation that required PEMEX to sell ULSD nationwide by the end of 2009.  But SEMARNAT did not adopt the 2007 emission standards that would bring dramatically cleaner diesel engines to Mexico. 

Since then, the ULSD program has been implemented only in the border zone and in Mexico City and Guadalajara.  

PEMEX’s delay reflects that fact that Mexico’s trucks don’t actually need ULSD to operate properly—because SEMARNAT has not adopted a regulation that would bring those advanced diesel emission control technologies to Mexico’s vehicles. 

The Calderón administration has signalled that it will adopt fuel economy regulations later this year.  But we know, from experience elsewhere, that policies to increase fuel economy that aren’t accompanied with stringent emission standards will lead to a shift to dirty diesel vehicles that increase air pollution.

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened in Europe:  tax policies favored diesel cars in many countries, emissions standards were weaker than in the U.S., and the result was a car market that shifted towards dirty diesel cars throughout the 1990s.

So now, the coalition has regrouped, and we’ve added important partners.  We’re working with longstanding friends like Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA), Centro Mario Molina, Centro de Transporte Sustentable (CTS Mexico), Colectivo Ecologista Jalisco (CEJ) and the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), as well as new partners like El Poder del Consumidor,

Together, we’re aiming to help Mexico adopt fuel economy standards that are most appropriate for Mexico—but also aiming to help ensure that those fuel economy standards don’t lead to a market shift to dirty diesels.

Why?

Because after much hard work, policy-making, and policy implementation, air quality in Mexico’s cities is better than it’s been in decades.  Indeed, when I’m in Mexico City, I no longer think it’s unusual to see the mountains from the upper floors of any downtown building.  That’s real progress.

But the job of achieving clean air isn’t finished, and policies to improve fuel economy should be accompanied by policies to further reduce vehicle pollution.

Adopting a full package of standards that improves the fuel economy—and cuts the emissions—of Mexico’s vehicles will bring health benefits to all Mexicans, as well as economic benefits to Mexican consumers and businesses.

Over the next few months, I’ll follow this story as it develops, so stay tuned.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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