Trucks carry China’s economy, at suffocating cost

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By Keith Bradsher

New York Times News Service

GUANGZHOU, China — Every night, columns of hulking blue and red freight trucks invade China’s major cities with a reverberating roar of engines and dark clouds of diesel exhaust so thick it dims headlights.

By daybreak in this sprawling metropolis in southeastern China, residents near thoroughfares who leave their windows open overnight find their faces stiff with a dark layer of diesel soot.

After Mary Leung opens her tiny open-air shop along a major road soon after dawn, she must wipe the soot off her countertops and tables; the tiny yellow-and-olive bird that has kept her company is harder to clean.


Trucks are the mules of China’s spectacularly expanding economy — ubiquitous and essential, yet highly noxious.

Trucks here burn diesel fuel contaminated with more than 130 times the pollution-causing sulfur that the United States allows in most diesel. While car sales in China are now growing even faster than truck sales, trucks are by far the largest source of street-level pollution.

Tiny particles of sulfur-laden soot penetrate deep into residents’ lungs, interfering with the absorption of oxygen. Nitrogen oxides from truck exhaust, which build all night because cities limit truck traffic by day, bind each morning with gasoline fumes from China’s growing car fleet to form dense smog that inflames lungs and can cause severe coughing and asthma.

The 10 million trucks on Chinese roads, more than a quarter of all vehicles in this country, are a major reason that China accounts for half the world’s annual increase in oil consumption. Sating their thirst helped push the price of oil to record levels this year, before a recent decline, and has propelled China past the United States this year as the world’s largest emitter of global-warming gases.

Yet cleaning up truck pollution presents complex problems for China’s leaders.

For instance, regulators have begun raising emissions standards for new trucks, but have left millions of older ones belching black smoke. Forcing businesses and farmers to buy more-expensive vehicles could put a drag on the economy, which already faces inflationary pressure from rising food prices and other costs.

That fear of inflation — not to mention political and social unrest — has led Beijing to prevent the country’s mostly state-owned oil companies from increasing diesel prices at the pump in pace with global oil prices.

But price controls create a vicious circle. Oil giants like Sinopec, losing money on every gallon of diesel they refine because of the low sales prices, upgrade refineries slowly, if at all, and seek out cheap crude with high levels of sulfur to make diesel, negating the effects of higher emissions standards for new vehicles.


"Sinopec is trying our best to purchase low-quality crudes — much heavier and more sulfur content," said Evan Jia, a Sinopec spokesman. "We buy those kinds of crudes to lower the purchasing cost."

Low state-subsidized diesel prices frequently make trucks more cost-effective than trains, which pollute less. Sales of large freight trucks in China outpace those in the United States by a wide margin. Demand for diesel at service stations is so great, and supplies are so tight, that rationing and shortages have become common. Truck drivers idle for hours only to be allowed to buy as little as five gallons of fuel.

China has stepped up rail services for hauling freight, but not fast enough to slow rapid growth in the truck fleet. Since 2000, sales of heavy-duty trucks have risen sixfold while car sales have risen eightfold.

This has created myriad problems, from gridlock that chokes China’s cities to pollution that chokes its citizens, contributing each year to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths from heart and lung problems, according to the World Bank.

Poor fuel in dirty trucks

In nearby Shenzhen, Chan Kin-fun also faces economic realities.

A salesman shows Chan, the operations manager of a Hong Kong trucking company, around the towering tractor cabs at a Sinotruk dealership. Even the most modern cabs have engines that emit at least three times the levels of nitrogen oxides of new American trucks and at least seven times the particles — even with clean, low-sulfur diesel.

Building a truck that meets top emissions standards is not just a question of spending a little extra on better pollution-control equipment. It usually requires radical engine redesigns, which can add thousands of dollars to a truck’s price.


But the opportunities for further improvements in emissions per vehicle are limited by poor fuel quality.

The United States allows maximum sulfur concentrations of just 15 parts per million for most diesel fuels, while China allows up to 2,000 parts per million. The average sulfur in American gasoline is limited to 30 parts per million; China allows up to 800 parts per million.

Sulfur clogs emissions control equipment, and the more advanced the equipment, the more vulnerable it is to sulfur damage. And China lacks an effective inspection system to enforce even its more lenient standards.

The cleaner fuel available in cities like Guangzhou and Beijing helps limit car pollution. But truck drivers tend to fill up in rural areas with less expensive high-sulfur fuel.

Western oil companies pay extra to buy low-sulfur crude because removing sulfur through refining is difficult. But in a bid to control inflation, the Chinese government orders service stations to sell gasoline and diesel at prices so low that they frequently fall below refiners’ costs.

That gives refiners like Sinopec a strong incentive to buy the cheapest possible crude. Jia, the spokesman, said the company then refined the crude to meet China’s standards. Low diesel prices also leave oil company refinery divisions with little money to invest in modernization.

The Chinese government raised regulated prices of gasoline and diesel by nearly 10 percent on Nov. 1, to the yuan equivalent of $2.65 a gallon. But that still roughly equals the wholesale price of diesel on international markets and is slightly higher than the wholesale price of gasoline, leaving nothing to cover the cost of distributing fuel to service stations, not to mention profit.

So refineries and service stations have been cutting back on sales, to the dismay of truckers.

Behind wheel, a hard life

After four years of coping with diesel shortages every few months, Zhang Yanchao, a 33-year-old trucker, thought he had become inured to lining up for fuel. But that was before he waited 10 hours on a recent night outside Guangzhou and was then allowed to buy just a quarter-tank of diesel.

"It’s the worst I’ve ever seen," he said. "I couldn’t get any sleep since I had to keep moving forward in the line of trucks all night long."

Two dozen truckers said in interviews here in Guangzhou and in Shenzhen that fuel shortages had become chronic. The shortages also contribute to air pollution, with trucks idling for hours as they wait in line.

Rapid highway construction has reduced travel time in much of China. A half-dozen truckers who regularly drive from Shandong province, 1,000 miles northeast of Guangzhou, said that what had been a three-day trip five years ago took only two days in the summer of this year, thanks to the new expressways. But they said long waits for fuel had since lengthened the trip to four days.

The journeys are tough on drivers’ health, as they breathe the exhaust of the trucks ahead of them.

"When a truck driver is not eating rice, he’s eating diesel," said Zhang over a dinner of rice and vegetables at a grimy cafe here as his brakes were repaired.

He acknowledged that the diesel exhaust was probably not good for him, and said many truck drivers developed coughs.

"Coughing comes with old age, but driving a truck makes it worse," he said. "But coughing can come from these cigarettes as well."

One response to China’s truck-pollution problem would be to ban older trucks. But the government has resisted such a radical step, fearing the costs not just to the economy, but to the truckers and to members of their extended families, who typically pool their savings to finance a truck.

Another obstacle to change may be the lack of public criticism of truck pollution. While environmental groups are rapidly multiplying in China, vehicle pollution has attracted little attention — and much resignation among truckers and residents alike.

Zhang typified that reaction when he said, surveying the dingy truck stop, "If you don’t like pollution, go live in the mountains."

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