-By Elisabeth Luntz
VW Settlement and the Clean Air Movement in Utah
In June, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced a series of state and federal court settlements that will cost Volkswagen and its related entities $15.2 billion nationwide for selling over 570,000 cars equipped with “defeat device” software. Widely publicized once it became known, the illegal software allowed the automaker to circumvent state and federal emission standards. Subsequent litigation prompted negotiations involving over forty states’ Attorneys General, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and even some individual car owners.
The first settlement of $10 billion requires VW to pay restitution to car owners in addition to either fixing their car or buying it back. Utah’s 7,877 impacted car owners should see a minimum of $40-$80 million of that (or about $7,600 each). A separate settlement requires VW to pay about $2.7 billion to an environmental fund going to mitigation projects, translating to about $32 million for Utah. Additionally, VW must pay out $2 billion for zero emission technology development and $20 million to the states for legal fees. Both the buyback and the environmental mitigation settlements apply only to the vehicles with 2.0-liter engines. As of June, a separate case involving VW 3.0-liter engines is ongoing.
Mitigation Funds and Clean Air Legislation
Representative Stephen Handy (Republican – Layton) was made aware of the Volkswagen settlement while attending the National Conference of State Legislators. For three years Handy has been trying to launch a significant initiative to replace “Dirty Diesel” school buses in Utah. Of the 2,800 school buses in service statewide, Handy says that about 450 are models older than 2006 and that some are more than 20 years old and pose a threat to the environment and to the children who ride in them daily.
Handy is also concerned for others in congested school parking lots where idling is also a common feature at drop off and pick up zones. He has concerns that even these who are nearby are also at risk. Describing the frustration of trying to pass legislation to alleviate this problem, Handy said, “Although everyone loves the idea and really gets it, when it comes down to it, I haven’t been able to get $20 million or even $10 million [to fund the proposal to modernize buses].” Handy feels that this is because these requests impact the education fund, the school districts’ discretionary spending, and the Utah State Board of Education’s oversight – because these interests prefer that available funds go towards the weighted pupil unit.
Handy is eyeing a portion of the $32 million in Volkswagon environmental mitigation fund for bus upgrades and has filed a House concurrent resolution to that end. “Assuming that we replaced just 119 model year 1996 diesel school buses that travel some 10,000 miles a year with 119 clean fuel school buses…that would result in an 80 percent [>25 ton] reduction in PM2.5 per year,” he said. In addition to particulate matter, Handy is looking into the deadly NOx impact as well, adding, “If we moved to EV [electric vehicle] buses the clean air impact would be even greater.”
Even with a resolution, intrastate competition for these mitigation project funds is anticipated once the money becomes available.
Handy is also sponsoring a bill to maintain incentives for EV’s. Existing tax credits have been effective in propelling Utah into the top ten states for EV adoption. However, EVs only represent 0.4 percent of Utah’s total new passenger vehicles bought between 2011 and 2016, even though the state has provided incentives since the mid 90’s. In 2016 Representative Handy’s legislative effort to maintain incentives, including a $1,500 tax credit for EVs, passed out of the House but died in the Senate because of debate centering on the bill’s fiscal impact. Adding to the pressure to act is the fact that Utah’s current incentives expire on December 31. This year’s bill will seek to maintain current incentive levels: up to $1,500 tax credit for new CNG (natural gas), up to $1,500 for long range electric/plug-in hybrids, up to $1,000 for short range electric/plug-in hybrids and $750 for new electric motorcycles.
Advocates with Utah Clean Energy and others, including Representative Handy, have been working on a new initiative to accelerate EV adoption by creating a tax credit for the lender, similar to the way it works with a vehicle’s lease.
In Utah’s most recent public opinion polls, air quality rose to Utah’s 2nd most important issue, just below health care and just above education. 87 percent of self-described liberals and 58 percent of similarly defined conservatives called it an “important issue.” Liberal voters were more than three times more likely than conservatives to say that government should act to improve air quality – even if it raises taxes or puts jobs at risk. Wasatch Front registered voters (living in Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties) had a slightly higher level of concern than more rural voters, and ranked “Air Quality” as the number one priority on Wasatch Front voters’ top-10 list, according to Utah Foundation.
Front page image credit: EPA.gov