A state proposal to divvy up millions of dollars related to a Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal almost completely shuts out Austin — even though Austinites purchased more of the compromised Volkswagens, as a percentage of population, than other parts of Texas.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in a draft plan published this week that it will release the lion’s share of Volkswagen pollution mitigation money — $170 million — to San Antonio; the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex; Houston, Galveston and Brazoria; El Paso; and the Beaumont-Port Arthur area.
The money could be used for a range of air quality improvement measures, such as upgrading school buses or converting municipal fleets to electric vehicles.
But zero dollars go to the greater Austin metro area, even though far more of the vehicles were operated here — 2.39 vehicles per 1,000 residents — than in the areas that are earmarked to receive the money — 1.21 vehicles per 1,000 residents, on average.
State environmental officials say they’re directing money to areas that have the dirtiest air. All the areas are hovering near or above federal smog limits. These are areas “most likely to see the greatest benefit” of an influx of the Volkswagen money, said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for TCEQ.
An official with the Capital Area Council of Governments, a coalition of Austin-area governments that works to improve air quality, among other things, said he was disappointed with the proposal.
“We understand the need to prioritize the use of these funds to have the maximum benefit for the people of the state,” said Andrew Hoekzema, director of regional services at the coalition. “But we’re disappointed TCEQ has not proposed any of the funding come to the fourth largest metro area in the state.”
He said that smog figures logged this summer suggested Austin may run afoul of federal clean air rules — and that, by some measures, air quality is growing worse here than in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area.
The current federal smog standard is 70 parts per billion; various parts of Central Texas have had 10 days in 2018 during which smog was counted at more than 70 parts per billion.
The question of how the money is allocated gets at the heart of the purpose of the Texas Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, as it’s officially known.
Texas is getting $209 million of a nearly $3 billion emissions mitigation settlement with the auto company, reached after Volkswagen was sued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California in 2016.
In the lawsuit, the federal agency and California alleged that even as Volkswagen promoted itself as a green company, it had installed devices on roughly 590,000 of its light-duty diesel vehicles designed to game pollution tests. The devices caused the emissions control system of those vehicles to perform differently during testing than during normal driving.
In normal use, the vehicles spewed nitrogen oxide, a component of smog, above federal standards.
Texas’ share of the mitigation money was based on the number of affected vehicles registered within its boundaries. Texas, according to documents, had 40,444 of the vehicles, including more than 5,000 in the greater Austin area.
The offending Volkswagens were emitting as much as 40 times the pollution as other sedans and light-duty vehicles in the same model year.
Under the TCEQ proposal, as much as $31 million of the settlement would be spent on electric charging stations, which could be placed anywhere in the state.
Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated he might be disinclined to direct money toward areas that do not chronically fail federal air standards.
In 2017, the governor announced a line-item veto of $6 million appropriated for air quality programs in Austin, Waco, El Paso, Beaumont, Corpus Christi, Granbury, Killeen-Temple, Longview-Tyler-Marshall, San Antonio and Victoria — parts of the state that have managed to narrowly meet federal clean air standards.
“Resources in the Clean Air Account should be prioritized to directly address problems in our non-attainment areas of the state” — that is, areas of the state that failed clean air standards — “so that we are better positioned to combat the business-stifling regulations imposed on these areas by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Abbott said.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.
The commissioner most closely involved with the Volkswagen draft plan — Jon Niermann — was appointed by Abbott to the agency in 2015. Niermann was not available for comment on Thursday.
With few heavily polluting industries in Central Texas, Austin has stayed just this side of federal smog standards. But it has long labored to keep the area clean. Austin-area drivers spend roughly $20 million a year on vehicle inspections and repairs to ratchet down smog levels.
About three-fourths of the money for those efforts comes through the $16 vehicle emissions inspection that motorists of Travis and Williamson counties pay for annually. The rest comes out of motorists’ pockets — a new air filter to pass inspection, for example, is covered by the driver.
The federal smog standards are meant to reduce premature deaths, asthma, bronchitis, hospital visits and days when people miss work or school.
The state environmental agency will take comments for the next 60 days on the proposal.
The draft “is a mixed bag,” said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of environmental group Public Citizen, “with both encouraging and confounding elements.”
While he praised the set-aside for electric vehicle infrastructure, Shelley called the geographic allocations “lopsided.”
How the Volkswagen case unfolded
• 2014 — A group of West Virginia University researchers observe that a Volkswagen Passat and a Jetta, cars that passed emissions tests in lab settings, were exceeding emissions limits by a factor of as much as 35 while on the road.
• 2015 — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accuses the company of violating federal clean air rules. One study has suggested emissions caused by the defeat devices, as they are known, would cause nearly 60 premature deaths in the U.S.
• January 2016 — The U.S. Justice Department, acting on behalf of the EPA, sues Volkswagen. That March, the company also is sued by the Federal Trade Commission for the environmental claims about its vehicles.
• January 2017 — The Justice Department announces $4.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties and arrests six Volkswagen executives for their alleged connection with the scandal.
• August 2017 — A Volkswagen engineer is sentenced to 40 months in prison and a $200,000 fine.
• December 2017 — A former general manager of the company’s environmental office in Michigan is sentenced to seven years in prison and a $400,000 fine.
A corporate compliance monitor will watch Volkswagen for three years under the terms of its probation.
Make your voice heard
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is accepting public comments on its Draft Beneficiary Mitigation Plan for Texas. Comments may be submitted through Oct. 8 by email to VWsettle@tceq.texas.gov or by post to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Air Quality Division, Implementation Grants Section, MC-204, P.O. Box 13087, Austin, TX 78711-3087, ATTN: VW Settlement.