Congress should deliver on its diesel pledge

Members of Congress work daily to improve the country’s environment and clean the air our constituents breathe. We all value air quality, but many choices on this issue can be costly and controversial.

That is not the case when it comes to upgrading the nation’s school buses with new clean technology. The Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) is both a reliable funding mechanism to do so and a rare environmental “win-win.” DERA helps reduce emissions without unduly harming economic development, but Congress needs to act now to fund this critical clean air program.

Diesel engines are the technology of choice in numerous sectors of the economy because they are energy-efficient, reliable, and durable. Every day, hundreds of thousands of our nation’s children ride to school on diesel buses; commuters take diesel buses, trains, and ferries to work; diesel trucks deliver household goods and haul away our recyclables; diesel construction equipment builds our roads; and diesel tractors help us plant and harvest our crops. Diesel performs valuable work for our economy, but all of these engines also emit particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act.

Fortunately, today’s diesel engines are cleaner than ever before, producing near-zero emissions. For example, it would take 60 of today’s new diesel trucks to equal the emissions from one engine built in the 1980s. However, since diesel engines often last for hundreds of thousands of miles or run for hundreds of thousands of hours, a fleet of equipment manufactured 30 years ago can still be in operation today.

Thankfully, many of today’s new clean technologies can be applied to older engines, significantly reducing emissions from existing diesel fleets. Such modifications or upgrades, known as “retrofits,” offer little fuel or operating efficiencies. As a result, making this investment in air quality is a costly proposition for fleet owners or local government operators who face increasingly tighter operating budgets.

Passed two years ago as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, DERA is a bipartisan initiative authored by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) that authorizes $1 billion over five years to help states clean up diesel fleets, including school buses.
Diesel retrofits offer a number of benefits over other emissions reduction strategies.  Retrofitting is cost-effective, produces immediate emissions reductions, and eliminates new infrastructure requirements.   

While a limited appropriation was made for EPA’s Clean School Bus USA Initiative in fiscal year 2007, DERA has never been funded. That must change.

Since DERA’s inception, a wide-ranging national coalition — including organizations as diverse as the American Lung Association, Cummins, Navistar, Caterpillar, Diesel Technology Forum, Environmental Defense, National Association of Clean Air Agencies, National School Transportation Association, and Union of Concerned Scientists — has requested that Congress expand funding for clean diesel retrofit programs. This broad and unique group of 155 environmental and public health organizations, industry representatives, and state and local government associations called for $49.5 million in 2008 to fund diesel emissions reduction programs, saying this federal investment “is needed and fiscally responsible.” A portion of all DERA money is dedicated as matching funds for state retrofit work, thereby further leveraging the dollars Congress appropriates.

The House took the first step by recently approving $50 million for DERA within EPA’s fiscal 2008 budget. We strongly encourage the Senate to do the same and appropriate this much-needed funding.

We have both seen diesel retrofit projects work in our home states, and we understand the value of a national retrofit-funding initiative. California’s Carl Moyer Program serves as a model for many other state and local retrofit regimes. It provides incentives for the purchase of cleaner on-road and off-road equipment; marine, locomotive, and stationary agricultural pump engines; airport ground support; and auxiliary power units.

Successful retrofit projects, including several school bus programs, were also completed in southeastern Illinois thanks to EPA’s Clean School Bus USA program. State efforts are underway to boost funding for diesel retrofit projects which support increased use of biodiesel — a renewable fuel eligible for incentive funding under DERA. Such an approach simultaneously addresses our air quality and national energy security concerns.  

As many cities and states struggle to meet strict new federal standards for cleaner air, America needs more than just a patchwork approach to address our environmental challenges. A national clean diesel retrofit program must be a significant part of the solution, and it is Congress’s responsibility to remove funding barriers to programs that clean the air we breathe.

DERA is a cost-effective strategy to improve our nation’s air quality, and it represents sound environmental and budgetary policy. For our nation’s and our children’s well being, Congress needs to deliver on its pledge to support diesel retrofit technologies. That investment today will return a cleaner tomorrow.

Shimkus is ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on the Environment and Hazardous Materials. Matsui is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Rules committees.

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