Utah regulators push back against failing grade on how to spend VW settlement monies

Utah regulators push back against failing grade on how to spend VW settlement monies

(Silas Walker, KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A nonprofit advocacy organization looked at how all 50 states and Puerto Rico decided to spend $2.9 billion awarded in the Volkswagen diesel cheat settlement case and handed out letter grades dependent solely on vehicle electrification.

Four states received A grades — Hawaii, Washington, Vermont and Rhode Island — while 35 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all flunked outright. Utah was among the failing group in the assessment by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

Matthew Casale, the organization's 21st century transportation campaign director, said states had an opportunity to fully invest their portion of the settlement in long-term emission reductions by dedicating it to electric vehicles and not leaving other options on the table.

The grades also did not take into account anything states may be doing, or have done, on the electric vehicle front outside the VW settlement mitigation fund.

In Utah, the grade ignored the nearly $7 million allocated by the Utah Legislature to boost electric vehicle charging infrastructure, the five-year pilot program with Rocky Mountain Power that spends $2 million in that same arena and the tri-state agreement Utah is participating in to fully electrify major corridors.

Casale said the scope of the grades, based on eight categories, was narrow in focus given the unique pot of "free money" offered up by the settlement after the vehicle manufacturer was caught using software on some of its vehicles for emission tests. In some cases, the cars were emitting nitrogen oxides — a precursor to fine particulate pollution — 38 times higher than the permitted level.

Utah set up a stakeholder group, solicited input and did a scientific analysis of where it could deliver the most emission reductions per ton, in the most efficient and cost-effective way, said Lisa Burr, environmental planning consultant with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The mitigation analysis showed that medium- and heavy-duty diesel vehicles account for the largest source of contributors to nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions in areas along the Wasatch Front that don't meet federal Clean Air standards.

Along the Wasatch Front the I-15 corridor stands as the a primary route for those diesel vehicles, which are the primary mode of freight movement in Utah.

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Numbers from the Utah Department of Transportation, for example, put Utah No. 1 in the country for the percentage of freight trucks on its corridors. The Wasatch Front is a central point for thousands of distribution centers, warehouse and terminals for the nation's largest trucking companies.

According to Utah's mitigation plan, the Logan nonattainment area — which endures some of the worst air quality in the nation— sees more than 65 million vehicle miles traveled annually by heavy-duty diesel vehicles.

Of the $35 million Utah received in the settlement, Utah's plan carved out $73.5 percent of the money to replacement government-owned fleet vehicles, such as local freight trucks, school, shuttle or transit buses.

Another 7 percent of the settlement goes to the Diesel Emission Reduction Act, or DERA, for the private sector.

In the last 11 years, nearly $18 million in awards from this program dropped lifetime emissions from medium and heavy-duty vehicles by 8,000 tons.

Michelle Brown, coordinator of resource stewardship within the Utah Department of Administrative Services, said attacking the aging fleet — often constrained from turnover by limited budgets — was a strategic move to reduce emissions as quickly as possible and with a cost savings to the taxpaying public.

"It was considered a win win."

EVGrade (Photo: Heather Tuttle)
EVGrade (Photo: Heather Tuttle)

Utah allocated 11 percent of its settlement money to zero emission light duty equipment and also allowed for additional incentives for government fleets that switched to electric vehicle technologies, something Burr said she doesn't believe Utah received appropriate credit for in the grading process.

Casale said he hopes the report stimulates states to implement plans with more emphasis on electrification.

"The states that scored highly on our report card developed plans that specifically dedicated the money towards vehicle electrification, not leaving open the options for it to be spent on diesel, CNG, or propane technology. "

But Burr said Utah wanted to achieve the most emission reductions per dollars spent.

"The cost for a diesel transit bus is around $200,000," she said. "The cost for an electric transit bus would be around $700,000. That's a huge disparity. When we are trying to achieve the most reductions at the lowest cost, it just seemed foolish to put all the money in electric."

The state mitigation funds were crafted in the settlement case to allow states to invest the funds given in state air, energy and climate goals, existing infrastructure, expected emissions reductions benefits and other variables.


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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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