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August 09, 2016   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

How the VW Settlement Can Benefit Environmental Justice Communities…With the Right Choices

Thanks to the historic VW settlement, the opportunity is there, the technology is available, and the users are interested and motivated. What are we waiting for to get on the road to cleaner air?

Communities located near warehouse districts, freight terminals, rail yards and truck routes, and other areas of concentrated vehicle activities are at the intersection of goods movement, land use planning, traffic congestion and clean air concerns. Volkswagen’s historic emissions-compliance settlement with the Department of Justice, the State of California and others includes a substantial ($2.7 billion) trust to fund projects to reduce smog forming emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx).

When finalized and approved by the Court, the trust could offer immediate opportunities for rapid progress towards cleaner air for communities most in need. But funding is not assured and steps must be taken by local and state leaders to take full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and make the best choices for the fastest improvements.

Across the country, the biggest source of NOx emissions is from mobile sources, and predominantly from heavy-duty trucks and off-road equipment including construction and agricultural equipment as well as locomotives and marine vessels. Efforts to reduce NOx emission from “mobile sources” will have the greatest benefit as these are the largest contributors.

How to Get the Biggest Reduction in Emissions? Clean Diesel

Since nearly all the commercial trucks and larger off-road equipment, locomotives and marine vessels are powered by diesel engines, introducing the latest clean diesel technologies is the fastest way to cleaner air. The trust, when finalized, will also likely allow for other investments in alternative fuels and infrastructure, which generally are less available and take longer to implement, and are more expensive than clean diesel options.

The historic settlement agreement as it currently stands has a number of funding schemes and allocations depending on government fleet or private fleet. Some provisions call for the trust to pay 75 or 100 percent of the cost of an electric vehicle (which is not currently available) for a government fleet or as little as 25 to 50 percent of the cost of a new clean diesel engine or vehicle that is available right now and ready to go to work today.

For most communities concerned about environmental justice, the issues are firmly centered on the emissions coming from a fleet of typically older generation big-rig trucks without the latest advanced near-zero emissions control systems. These trucks represent 75 percent of fuel consumed by all commercial vehicles nationwide and are typically the largest source of transportation-related NOx emissions.

Using the Trust funds to accelerate the introduction of new technology clean diesel trucks into a region should be the top priority for all stakeholders in environmental justice communities. The currently proposed funding allocation, while more generous for electric heavy-duty trucks, fails to recognize that that technology is generally unavailable, particularly in timeframes and quantities of scale to truly impact air quality. According to a recent report issued by the California Air Resources Board, all-electric Class 8 trucks available today do not meet most customer needs. Heavy-duty tractors typically travel in excess of 100,000 miles each year yet all-electric heavy-duty trucks are confined to just 100 miles each day with frequent stops necessary for recharging. Still yet, according to the report, all-electric Class 8 technology comes at a price triple that for a clean diesel truck and this price disparity will persist for some time.

Clean Diesel is available now and 50 times more cost-effective at reducing NOx than other approaches.

While the funding scheme currently proposed offers more funding for all electric than clean diesel replacements, the money from the Trust won’t go as far and the benefits for NOx reduction won’t be nearly as great. The Department of Transportation, using EPA’s recent emissions model, estimates that 1 ton of NOx can be eliminated for $20,000 using clean diesel technology or about $1 million by investing in all-electric infrastructure. Much more NOx can be eliminated by investing in clean diesel technology than all-electric heavy-duty applications.

Communities want to see results today; in their lifetimes. Proven clean diesel technology is widely available today and can deliver immediate air quality benefits. No infrastructure costs or disruptive changes to land use are required to introduce more clean diesel technology for trucks, locomotives or work boats. Thanks to the historic VW settlement, the opportunity is there, the technology is available, and the users are interested and motivated. What are we waiting for to get on the road to cleaner air?

Sources of NOx Emissions in 2014 (Tons/Year)


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Ezra Finkin
Director, Policy

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