With Volkswagen money, advocates say, Pa. should be all-in on electric vehicles — but that’s not happening

A new report from PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center and PennPIRG Education Fund fails Pennsylvania for its use of money from a 2017 federal settlement with Volkswagen over that company’s emissions cheating.

Margaret J. Krauss / WESA

A new report from PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center and PennPIRG Education Fund fails Pennsylvania for its use of money from a 2017 federal settlement with Volkswagen over that company’s emissions cheating.

Pennsylvania is squandering a financial windfall and missing out on the potential air quality improvements it could support, according to a new report from non-profits PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center and PennPIRG Education Fund.

“Reducing air pollution with clean vehicles is critical,” said Ashleigh Deemer, western Pennsylvania director for PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center. “If we have limited funding, we need to concentrate that into the vehicles that are going to clean up the air the most.”

The report, Volkswagen Settlement State Scorecard, analyzes how states have invested money from a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice settlement with Volkswagen, after it was found VW cheated on emissions tests for diesel vehicles and then lied about it. The Environmental Mitigation Trust aims to reduce nitrogen oxide or NOx emissions, and allocated funds to states based on the number of vehicles registered there; Pennsylvania received $118.5 million.

Through its Driving PA Forward grants, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has helped fund electric vehicle purchases and the creation of more than 500 new, Level 2 electric vehicle plugs. The commonwealth also helped pay for newer diesel vehicles or vehicles powered by alternative fossil fuels such as compressed natural gas or propane.

It’s a missed opportunity to help move the state toward an inevitable all-electric future, said Dean Mougianis of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“We’ll see incremental improvements until suddenly, one day, there will be a big shift, and that’s coming soon,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that can help bring us closer to that point.”

DEP wants to ensure there are clean alternatives for governments, school districts and private entities who want to replace an older, higher-polluting vehicle, said Deborah Klenotic, the department’s deputy communications director.

“We are looking to get the biggest bang for our buck in NOx emissions statewide, in rural, suburban and urban communities,” she said. “We want to improve the air quality for the highest number of Pennsylvanians.”

The funding programs were developed with input from across the state, and many regions lack electric vehicle infrastructure, she said. But newer vehicles or alternative fuels can still achieve important pollution reductions now, she said, and cited an emissions model from the EPA, which estimates that moving from a 1999 diesel tractor trailer to a new diesel engine or new CNG engine can reduce NOx emissions between 84 to 94 percent.

While DEP has so far received few applications for a switch from diesel to electric, Klenotic said they hope to see more in the future. She stressed the department welcomes discussion, and will probably review its existing funding programs at some point.

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