Speaking Clean

Speaking Clean

One labor leader quoted in these pages last week summed up the gathering controversy over regulation of harbor trucking by saying the debate is over an “arcane, 30-year-old law.”

That’s an unfortunate description because it misrepresents the very significant changes in federal law that are at the heart of the aggressive efforts being undertaken by a coalition of organized labor, environmental groups and a handful of port officials. And it’s especially unfortunate because it obscures a shift in a debate that began, or seemed to, over clean trucks but has grown into something far different.

The effort that began at the Port of Los Angeles is described, for instance, an attempt to amend a portion of the 1994 Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act.

What we actually talk about when we talk about amending “F4A,” as some call it, is stripping away some of the power of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. And we’re talking about setting unprecedented limits on the pre-emption of federal regulatory authority over state laws that has been established and upheld in court rulings over many decades.

We’re talking about the legal fabric of commerce in the United States, in other words.

That is why a federal appeals court sent a trucking industry request for an injunction against parts of the clean-trucks plans of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach back to a lower court last spring. And that is why a federal judge, after a very sharp education in constitutional law from the appeals panel, put a hold on every part of the ports’ plans that did not have to do with eliminating emissions at the ports.

In fact, officials at the ports made exactly that point back in April, reassuring everyone in the port communities that absolutely nothing in the court ruling would affect emissions.

Those port officials were exactly right, as were two environmental groups that in a recent letter to the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee trumpeted the “huge environmental success” at the San Pedro ports. So what is the problem with such success? The benefits, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council say, must be “secured and advanced,” and that can happen only if drivers work for established companies that have port concession agreements.

To make that case, the groups describe an unrealistic landscape with almost no enforcement of existing regulations and little prospect for meeting prospective goals, leaving the impression that the laudable gains of the past year were some happy accident unrelated to regulation, economic incentive, oversight and compliance. They even claim that unnamed “trucking industry representatives” say compliant trucks are picking up freight and then transferring loads to noncompliant trucks away from the ports. A short-haul drayage hub model certainly would break new economic ground.

The groups are right that the programs have been an environmental success. Now this coalition calling for a change in federal law should be clear that the effort has little, if anything, to do any longer with the environment.


Paul Page is editorial director at The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com.