Thanks to an allocation of about $35 million from the Volkswagen Settlement, Utah has a unique opportunity to replace some old dirty diesel equipment with new, cleaner models.
You may recall hearing about the VW scandal that hit the headlines last year. After an extensive investigation, VW finally admitted to installing “cheat devices” in about 11 million cars worldwide including 500,000 cars in the U.S. during model years 2009-2015. The affected 2.0-liter diesel cars include the Beetle, Beetle convertible, Golf, Golf Sportswagen, Jetta, Jetta Sportswagen, Passat and Audi A3.
VW intentionally programmed their turbocharged direct injection diesel engines to “cheat” on emissions tests. The “cheat device,” essentially a line of code in the vehicle’s software, was able to recognize when a vehicle was undergoing an emissions test and activate some emissions controls only during the emissions testing. The programming caused the vehicles’ NOx (nitrogen oxide pollution) output to meet U.S. standards during regulatory testing, but emit up to 40 times more NOx when actually driving.
All 3.0-liter turbocharged direct injection diesel engines sold in the U.S. from 2009-2015 were also fitted with emissions-cheating software, in the form of “alternate exhaust control devices.” The affected 3.0-liter vehicles emit up to nine times the federal standard under normal operation. About 85,000 of these vehicles have been sold in the U.S. since 2009 including VW Touareg, Porsche Cayenne, Audi A6 Quattro, Audi A7 Quattro, Audi A8, Audi A8L, Audi Q5 and Audi Q7 models.
So why would a car manufacturer like VW want to “cheat” emissions?
The EPA dramatically raised the bar for emissions standards starting with model year 2004. This new standard presented a tough engineering challenge to automakers. VW had its eyes set on being the market leader in fuel-efficient diesel passenger cars. They just needed a way around U.S. emissions standards.
You see, diesel cars get more torque, achieve better mileage and hold their long-term value better than most gas-powered vehicles, but the exhaust contains more NOx. And that is exactly what the EPA targeted when ramping up emissions standards.
NOx is a crucial component of EPA’s strategy for cleaner air due to its negative health and environmental impacts. Suppressing the emissions controls allowed for better fuel economy, power and performance—but at the expense of emitting up to 40 times more NOx than allowed by law, and all at the expense of our health.
To settle these violations, VW agreed to pay $15.7 billion, divided into three components: $10.8 billion for vehicle buyback and emission control modifications on at least 85% of the affected vehicles; $2 billion to promote the use of zero-emissions vehicles and infrastructure; and $2.9 billion for the Environmental Mitigation Trust, intended for NOx reduction projects to compensate for the excess NOx emissions from the affected 2.0 and 3.0 liter vehicles.
Impact in Utah
Approximately 7,000 vehicles in Utah were affected by the cheat devices. There are nearly 6,000 2.0 liter VW vehicles (model years 2009-2015) and about 1,000 3.0 liter diesel VW, Audi or Porsche vehicles (model years 2009-2015) statewide. About 70% of these affected vehicles are registered in the non-attainment counties, the counties that fail to meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Owners of these affected vehicles are able to apply for a buyback, or have the emissions controls fixed at VW’s expense, similar to a recall.
Cheating emissions is especially worrisome in a state like Utah, where we already have troubled air quality. We certainly don’t need any extra, unnecessary pollution entering our delicate airshed. The Division of Air Quality determined that the excess NOx emissions from the affected VW, Audi and Porsche vehicles are estimated to be about 230 tons per year.
If you’re wondering what 230 tons of NOx looks like, consider that on a typical winter weekday in the Salt Lake Valley the total NOx emissions coming from vehicles is about 72 tons. So 230 tons is roughly three weekdays worth of car pollution. The 2014 inventory shows that the total NOx emissions from vehicles is 23,744 tons per year. The extra 230 tons represents about 1% of the annual emissions. Either way you look at it, it’s pollution that we didn’t need.
Why do we care about NOx?
NOx negatively impacts the environment in a number of ways. When emitted into the atmosphere it contributes to the formation of fine particulate matter pollution, like the pollution we see during our wintertime inversions (PM 2.5), and it also contributes to the formation of ground level ozone pollution that is so prevalent during our hot summer months. NOx also contributes to the formation of acid rain and to nutrient overload that deteriorates water quality.
Human health concerns from NOx exposure include effects on breathing and the respiratory system, damage to lung tissue, increased asthma and premature death. The tiny particles can penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory diseases like emphysema and even bronchitis (that nagging cough that just won’t quit). Exposure can also aggravate existing heart disease, leading to an increase in heart attacks and strokes.
The silver lining
Now, the good news. As a beneficiary under the Environmental Mitigation Trust, Utah can apply for just over $35 million in funds to execute projects designed to reduce NOx emissions in the state. Only certain types of vehicles and engines are eligible under the settlement, and the engines that are replaced must be scrapped. You can rest easy knowing that a dirty engine won’t be replaced and simply reused somewhere else. This money gives the state the opportunity to replace things like those really dirty diesel garbage trucks that spew black smoke in our neighborhoods, or the local delivery trucks that emit huge plumes of black smoke at every intersection. The state can also choose to allocate up to 15% of the funds for electric vehicle-charging infrastructure.
The Division of Air Quality welcomed public comment on the eligible criteria in November. With this information and the recommendation from the advisory committee they will be busy drafting a plan and begin applying for the funds as early as Spring 2018. Under the settlement the state can apply for up to one-third of the funding each year. The money is good for 10 years.
In addition to the $35 million from the Trust, the state was awarded $7.5 million from the consumer fraud portion of the settlement. Governor Herbert has earmarked this money to replace dirty diesel school buses with cleaner models. This will greatly benefit the health of school children riding the bus, as well as those affected during pickup and dropoff at school.
This money will provide Utah a welcome advantage in the ongoing challenge of reducing air pollution and improving the health of its citizens.
Ashley Miller, J.D., is CATALYST’s new air quality columnist. Miller is program and policy director for Breathe Utah. She was recently appointed to the state’s new Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and is also a member of the SL County Health Department Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.