Senators Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) have introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to provide a highway weight exemption for trucks fueled by natural gas. Titled The Natural Gas Long Haul Truck Competitiveness Act of 2014, S 2721 would create a uniform federal standard allowing vehicles fueled by natural gas to exceed prevailing weight limits on federally funded highways by 1) the weight of the vehicle attributable to the natural gas tank and fueling system installed on the vehicle; and 2) the weight of a comparable diesel tank and fueling system.
Federal regulations enacted in 1994 limit the weight of trucks traveling on interstate highways to no more than 80,000 lbs. Particularly in the case of trucks fueled by CNG, which require heavy tanks for on-board storage of CNG under pressure, outfitting a heavy-duty truck to run on natural gas can add as much as 2,000 lbs. to a vehicle’s weight. The highway weight limits impose a penalty on trucks fueled by cleaner burning natural gas because the additional weight they incur due to their fuel storage systems means they cannot carry as heavy freight payloads as comparable diesel trucks. This acts as a disincentive to the purchase of NGVs by heavy-duty fleet operators. The weight exemption called for in S 2721 is aimed at leveling the playing field so that trucks fueled by natural gas and diesel can carry the same weight payloads as diesel trucks.
Approval of a weight exemption for NGVs would also install uniformity across the nation in terms of highway weight limits. Although the 80,000 lb. weight limit was enacted in 1994, higher weight limits were grandfathered in for some states that had higher limits in effect at the time the regulations were put in place, including Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Also, some states have acted on their own to raise highway weight limits for NGVs, including Indiana, Virginia, and Ohio, which have enacted 2,000 lb. weight exceptions for NGVs, and Colorado, which has enacted an 1,000 lb. weight exception. The resulting patchwork, with differing states having different weight limits, complicates the ability of long distance trucking concerns to plan interstate transport using trucks fueled by natural gas. S 2721 would eliminate this confusion.
By almost any measure, the prospects for enacting S 2721 are highly uncertain, as passing any NGV-friendly legislation through today’s divided Congress is a very trying and tenuous process (p. 7). For example, despite there being strong bipartisan support for renewal of the 50 cent excise tax credit per GGE and DGE of LNG and CNG that expired on the last day of 2013, efforts to renew these excise tax credits retroactively to the first of this year through December 31, 2015, have been upended by partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill (p. 8). It’s uncertain whether there will be sufficient support in Congress to enact a federal weight exemption and even if support surfaces, if procedural obstacles can be overcome to allow the exemption to come to a vote. One possibility for enacting a federal weight exemption for NGVs might be to attach S 2721 as a rider to congressional action to fund the federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Congress recently passed an interim measure to fund the HTF. The interim measure expires in May 2015 by which time Congress will need to act again to ensure sufficient funding for the nation’s federally funded highways.
There would seem to be a strong case for enacting a weight exemption for NGVs on the basis of reducing vehicle emissions. For example, at least 19 states have adopted Idle Reduction Weight Exemptions that permit vehicles equipped with idle reduction technology may exceed the state’s gross vehicle weight limits by up to 400 pounds to compensate for the additional weight of added idle reduction technology. The same emission reduction argument could be used to provide justification for a weight exemption for trucks fueled by low emitting CNG and LNG.
S 2721 has been endorsed by both NGVAmerica, the NGV trade Association, the American Trucking Association, and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). NGV stakeholders wanting to weigh in on S 2721 can find contact information for their U.S. Senators and members of the House of Representatives here.