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What the Volkswagen Settlement Means for PA

Back in 2014, it was discovered that certain diesel Volkswagen vehicles met the required emissions standards during the official Federal Test Procedure, but produced almost 40 times the smog-forming oxides of Nitrogen (NOx), when driven on the road.  

Eventually, Volkswagen admitted to installing an illegal “defeat device” on 11 million vehicles that would deactivate the emissions controls when it sensed the car wasn’t being tested. 

The ensuing worldwide scandal resulted in a number of criminal charges and civil suits. In the U.S. alone, the company has agreed to pay around $20 billion in penalties and settlements. One part of these settlements is known as the “Environmental Mitigation Trust.” It’s  a pool of money intended to mitigate the damages from pollution caused by these vehicles. Out of that pool, Pennsylvania has been allocated a little over $118.5 million.

This is not the same as the $30.4 million settlement Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced in March of 2017. While that was also intended to mitigate environmental damages, the Legislature -- through last year’s fiscal code -- required that money be deposited in the General Fund, and it’s not clear how that has benefited the environment.  

The Environmental Mitigation Trust program works a bit differently. Here, the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is the lead agency and they will review proposed projects, certify if they meet the conditions of the State Trust Agreement, and request funds for specific eligible projects.

The DEP has made its Beneficiary Mitigation Plan available online, but they have not yet announced that the program is open for applications. Still, it’s not too early to start thinking about potential projects. Funding will be available for reducing emissions in the following ten categories:

  1. Class 8 Local Trucks and Port Drayage Trucks
  2. Class 4-8 School Busses, Shuttle Busses, or Transit Busses
  3. Railroad Freight Switcher Locomotives
  4. Ferries/Tugs
  5. Ocean Going Vessels Shorepower
  6. Class 4-7 Local Freight Trucks
  7. Airport Ground Support Equipment
  8. Forklifts
  9. Light-Duty Zero Emission Vehicle Supply Equipment
  10. Matching funds for projects eligible under the Diesel Emission Reduction Act

Within these categories, the DEP has said that “consideration will be given to distributing project funding statewide, as appropriate, primarily based on the cost-effectiveness and the quantity of NOX emission reductions.” While replacing fossil fuel engines with electric alternatives will probably result in the largest overall emissions reductions, this focus primarily on NOx emissions will mean that many of the funded projects could involve replacing or retrofitting diesel engines with natural gas engines.

While there likely are cases where natural gas engines are the best available choice for a given application, PennFuture has encouraged the DEP to look beyond just the dollars per ton of NOx removed. Instead, we have asked that it puts more emphasis on projects that will build clean energy infrastructure or otherwise speed the market transformation to electric vehicles and other cleaner alternatives. This would be in keeping with the DEP’s trust responsibility under Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment.

Hopefully, DEP will take this advice, but this likely isn’t something it can make happen on their own. We need companies and individuals considering electric vehicles, EV infrastructure, or similar projects to apply for funding as soon as it becomes available. We don’t know how long this pool of money will last, but when it’s gone so is the opportunity.

Stay tuned on this issue by joining PennFuture's email list, as we will continue to keep the public updated on further developments.

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