How far should Ontario’s emissions crackdown go?

by John G. Smith

Cleaner air comes with a price tag. It’s paid every time equipment evolves in the name of controlling emissions.

A tighter focus on particulate matter gave us diesel particulate filters. When regulators squeezed the allowable levels of NOx, we saw the widespread introduction of exhaust gas recirculation and diesel exhaust fluid. The current push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has led to the rollout of everything from new oil categories to aerodynamic refinements and lighter components. Even battery-electric and hydrogen-electric trucks are now on the horizon.

Each new piece of equipment comes at a greater cost than the system before it. Before regulators shifted their focus to greenhouses gases, such changes even led to inferior fuel economy.

New maintenance headaches came along for the ride, of course. At best, this meant familiarizing everyone in a shop with the way new components worked. But the breakdowns were worse than that. Nobody knows it better than the drivers who have been left at the controls of a derated engine and a truck that must limp back to the shop because of a skipped regen. Then there are the operators who bring the same truck back to a shop time and again, chase down the fault codes, replace components and repeat.

As frustrating as these situations have become, some owner-operators and fleets appear to be going a step too far – openly thumbing their noses at any efforts to clear the air, and bypassing the emissions-controlling equipment as if they should be allowed to operate under a different set of rules than the rest of the trucking industry.

Whether they run a straight pipe through a gutted DPF cannister or reprogram an electronic control module to bypass the controls, they are breaking the law. And Ontario plans to make the practice much tougher.

The province’s Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks is establishing annual tests to ensure emission control systems are in place and operating. Even on-road enforcement teams will be on the prowl in the search for trucks from any jurisdiction that might be looking to carve out a competitive advantage at the expense of the environment.

These efforts should be applauded in the name of establishing a level playing field, and the Ontario Trucking Association is doing that very thing as it calls for various steps to crack down on “non-compliant” trucking operations.

But as the new enforcement regime is established, it’s also time to consider just how far future environmental crackdowns should go.

Changes in the name of lowering greenhouse gases, after all, come in the form of enhancements like new aerodynamic fairings and wheel covers, fluid choices, and tires. These will largely be accepted because they deliver benefits like better fuel economy.

But what happens to the operator that decides to remove an air dam because the bumpers keep hanging up on a raised railway crossing, or if they choose to swap out low-rolling-resistance tires in favor of something with a more aggressive tread? Will roadside teams really be expected to take oil samples to ensure there’s an FA4 formula in the sump, or put a truck out of service because the tire’s traction is too strong?

Before anyone dismisses such questions, they should remember that issues are the same. It’s just a different gas flowing from the exhaust.

And the line between “compliant” and “non-compliant” is ultimately defined by those who enforce the rules.

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  • While John’s ideas may seem a bit far fetched they really might not be. This is the government after all and MTO officers seem to like to ‘interpret’ the rules as they see fit.