J.B. Hunt Seeks Carbon Savings


J.B. Hunt Seeks Carbon Savings
Craig Harper, chief sustainablity officer at J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., says Electric vehicles are a workable option in the automobile sector but aren’t yet a viable option for the trucking industry. (Sarah Bentham)

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. has made news in recent years with its sustainability programs, notably its use of electric-powered trucks, a multimillion-dollar logistics platform and, most recently, its Clean Transport initiative to help partners and customers lessen their carbon footprints.

Electric vehicles are a workable option in the automobile sector but aren’t yet a viable option for the trucking industry, said Craig Harper, the Lowell company’s chief sustainability officer.

That’s one reason that J.B. Hunt’s main focus is on improving transportation efficiency, regardless of what mode is used, while the alternative-fuel technology catches up to industry needs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 29% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by vehicles, and one quarter of that amount was caused by medium and heavy trucks. In 2019, the EPA said, medium and heavy trucks emitted 318,030 million tons of greenhouse gases.

For Harper and J.B. Hunt, a global, publicly traded transportation giant, a quick answer is to deliver as many loads as possible intermodally. Intermodal is the use of multiple modes in transport, usually a 53-foot container that is shipped by freighter and then loaded on a train or tractor-trailer for delivery completion.

Intermodal is one of J.B. Hunt’s specialties. The company has more than 100,000 containers and has said it wants to expand to 150,000 within five years. Harper said an intermodal load produces 60% less carbon emissions than the same load delivered by a tractor when converted from highway truck transport to rail transport.

In 2017, J.B. Hunt announced a five-year, $500 million investment in a logistic platform it called Marketplace 360. The system, while much more in depth and complex in action, allows J.B. Hunt to find shippers with loads and put them together with carriers with capacity.

Harper said J.B. Hunt has 146,000 carriers with 900,000 trucks on the platform. Finding ready trucks for loads helps increase efficiency by reducing empty or deadhead miles, those miles a truck drives without a load in the trailer.

A report by freight company Convoy estimated that as many as 35% of miles nationwide could be deadheads. Harper said any reduction of deadhead miles improves a company’s finances and eliminates wasted carbon emissions.

Harper said, within its own fleet, J.B. Hunt has reduced its empty miles by nearly 6 million since 2020.

“You become more efficient by eliminating those extra miles,” Harper said. “Efficiency equals sustainability.”

Long-Time Goals

Harper noted that while some of J.B. Hunt’s newsmaking projects have come in the last few years, the company has been working on sustainability goals well before that. 

Harper said a series of investor phone calls in 2019 led J.B. Hunt CEO John Roberts to assemble a committee to examine the company’s sustainability efforts and visibility.

Harper, then the company’s chief operating officer, was a natural to lead the committee.

“J.B. Hunt has always been focused on sustainability, but we hadn’t always been as transparent,” Harper said. “That became obvious to us when we started getting some calls from investors and also customers about, ‘What are you doing in the world of sustainability?’ 

“We really started looking into it. We saw that we had not done a good job of telling the story of things we had been very successful at.”

Roberts picked Harper to fill the newly created role of chief sustainability officer in November 2020.

“I think, like most people, I’ve always had a concern about sustainability and what we were doing to keep the world as good as it is when we got here,” Harper said. “I have always had a big focus on safety and also doing the right thing as far as the environment goes.”

Growing Trend

Harper compared alternative-fuel vehicles to early cellphones or flat-screen televisions. When they first came out, the items were super expensive and the technology was not as advanced.

Electric vehicles, or those powered by other non-fossil fuel sources, will eventually get to where they can be used significantly in the transportation industry, Harper said. 

That’s why J.B. Hunt, like many other trucking companies, is partnering with EV manufacturers to advise on and test the technology.

Harper said his experience overseeing operations is helpful because he knows what a truck driver needs in a tractor to do his or her job well. 

The government is helping, too. The infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law in 2021 calls for billions of dollars in investments in the electric vehicle market, including $15 billion to install 500,000 charging stations nationwide. 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the Future Mobility Council earlier this year to provide recommendations for how the state can help promote the industry.

“With all the general, social movement toward a clean and sustainable future for transportation, it makes sense for Arkansas companies and Arkansas as a state to continue to invest in moving people and goods cleaner, faster, safer and at lower costs,” said council Chairman Cyrus Sigari, the co-founder of technology investment firm Up Partners. 

“Certainly one of the easiest ways to do that is by creating an ecosystem around electrification. You can’t just talk about electrifying the cars and the trucks, you have to figure out how you provide that electricity very cleanly to the actual vehicles themselves. There are tremendous tailwinds here, and I think you will continue to see this ecosystem building. Workforce, community, capital, customers, academic and [government] policy are all lining up to support this greater movement.”

Harper is confident the technology will reach commercially viable levels. J.B. Hunt reported income of more than $760 million for fiscal 2021 so it has the financial strength to experiment.

“As optimistic as we want to be, you have to be realistic about these things,” Harper said. “You have the weight penalty, the range anxiety, you have the costs, the initial costs of this equipment is no exaggeration, three times that of a diesel truck.

“There is the balance of trying to stay abreast of the technology and working with the technology and seeing where you can best implement it, but at the same time being commercially viable. 

“All of us can have these great desires and wishes and hopes, but if we are not around, if the company is not sustainable … you have to make decisions with your capital and be good stewards of your capital.”