VW settlement should fund clean air today — not years down the road

VW settlement should fund clean air today — not years down the road

By now, Volkswagen’s bad choices for emissions compliance are well documented. The next chapter of the story is how a multi-billion-dollar penance will be dispensed to right their emissions wrong. The Sierra Club’s has offered a one size, all-electrification-fits-all recommendation — that would just be another bad choice that would actually lead to dirtier air for a longer time. There is more than one way to achieve cleaner air. 

This type of approach focused on replacing traditional vehicle with electric cars asks communities to place a bet on clean air benefits at some point in the future based on the promise of technologies not yet widely available or available at all today. Any transition to electric vehicles will take time. The net result of this gamble will be to force communities to endure higher nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and ozone levels and wait another five, 10 or 15 years or more for cleaner air. 


Why press for spending of settlement dollars solely on electrification — a strategy they know will not yield immediate clean air benefits as rapidly or at the same level as other options? 


When it comes to proven and available technologies to reduce NOx emissions, the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation and others all conclude that clean diesel technology delivers the most reductions for a fixed investment. They say that one ton of NOx may be eliminated by investing, on average, $20,000 in clean diesel technology versus $1,000,000 in alternative fuel infrastructure.

Port communities and others with environmental justice concerns should expand their thinking as well. In New York Harbor, about 47 marine workboats help vessels navigate shipping lanes and facilitate waterborne commerce. Of those boats, 28 are powered by engines manufactured before emissions standards were required. Replacing just one of these oldest engines with a new clean diesel engine would reduce NOx by 96,000 lbs in one year. This is equivalent to upgrading the engines of 76 older Class 8 trucks, or taking 74,000 cars off the road.

Such a simple and cost-effective action — available now —would generate significant air quality benefits to nearby communities almost immediately, without relying on additional investments for refueling or recharging infrastructure, or the need for critical mass of as-yet-unavailable vehicles to actually deliver the NOx benefits they envision.

Investing in clean diesel upgrades for commercial vehicles and large off-road engines is the best way to maximize states’ ability to reduce the most emissions for the fixed investment offered for the Volkswagen settlement funds. That has been reinforced through the bipartisan Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) where industry and some environmental advocates worked together on solving problems.

This technology-neutral approach chooses the most cost-effective solution to reduce as many emissions as possible, as fast as possible. As a result, it has reduced more than 335,000 tons of NOx emissions.  

We’d all be wiser to not just see the world in absolutes. A fact-driven analysis and balanced approach in near and long-term investments in fuels and technology is what’s needed. There is no denying that the opportunity and promise of electrification for some applications is emerging. But, it’s not here yet for everything.

That’s why we need to keep making progress now and why having more than one fuel, one technology and one path is our best chance to achieve cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions. We need them all — and that includes clean diesel.

Allen Schaeffer is the executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of diesel engines, fuel and technology. Forum members represent the three key elements of the modern clean diesel system: advanced engines, vehicles and equipment, cleaner diesel fuel and emissions-control systems.