California agency directs grant money to diesel and natural gas vehicles instead of EVs
For many years, California has led the nation in adoption of electric vehicles and renewable energy. The state has a wide variety of programs intended to promote electrification across every segment of the transportation system.
Above: A diesel fueling station. Photo: Marius Matuschzik / Unsplash
Unfortunately, government programs are necessarily complicated, and it sometimes happens that state funds find their way into channels other than the ones that policymakers (and taxpayers) intended. In one case, grant money that was intended to promote adoption of zero-emission or low-emission commercial vehicles has instead been used to subsidize fossil fuel-burning vehicles, in preference to EVs, and to promote the consumption of natural gas.
The Guardian reports that, for several years, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has been directing a significant portion of its clean-air grants, representing millions of dollars, to diesel and natural gas-powered trucks. One of the agency’s biggest grant programs spent more than 90% of funds on diesel and natural gas incentives. Much of the funding has gone to large private companies such as Disneyland and Waste Management to fund replacing diesel vehicles with natural gas-powered ones.
South Coast has also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a trade group that promotes the idea that natural gas-powered vehicles are less polluting than EVs.
Agency spokespersons have argued that the electric alternatives available are too expensive, in part because they require additional investment in charging infrastructure, and that some of the equipment the grants are intended to replace (e.g. marine, construction and agricultural vehicles) doesn’t have a widely available electric alternative.
Climate advocates counter that if California considers natural gas to be part of its anti-pollution strategy, the state will never meet federal emissions standards.
“If you look at [South Coast], we’ve never reached attainment for national ambient air quality standards, ever. You can say we have tougher environmental laws, but we aren’t even hitting federal policy,” said Mark Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a community organizing group.
“This deep investment in the gas industry...helps prop up the opposition to zero emissions,” said Adrian Martinez, Senior Attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice. “Where it gets strange is when the government is so entangled in pushing and selling [the gas industry’s] product for them.”
South Coast’s Community Air Protection Program distributes funding aimed at lowering emissions in low-income neighborhoods. The program paid out $210 million over the past four years to help organizations to upgrade their diesel trucks. More than 90% of that has been spent on newer diesel engines or natural gas trucks.
“Many of the participants in the incentive programs do not want to take a risk on unfamiliar new technologies, especially when their livelihood relies upon this equipment,” said agency spokesperson Nahal Mogharabi. “As with most new technologies, the battery-electric trucks are expensive, have limited range, and require the addition of infrastructure that makes them much less cost-effective in providing the criteria pollutant emission reduction.”
However, a recent study from the California Air Resources Board—which oversees South Coast—found that zero-emission vehicles are the cheapest option to own and operate, and that replacing diesel trucks with natural gas trucks can actually be worse for the climate, because of the methane emissions associated with producing natural gas.
South Coast appears to be deeply entangled with a trade group that promotes natural gas vehicles in preference to EVs. The California Natural Gas Vehicle Partnership was established in late 2002 by Norma Glover, South Coast’s chairperson at the time. Since then, South Coast has paid at least $250,000 in dues to the partnership, which has engaged in a variety of activities to promote consumption of natural gas.
The partnership has worked closely with the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, which is backed by natural gas suppliers and oil giants Chevron, BP and Shell, and has fought climate policies through lobbying and lawsuits.
The Guardian article details several business relationships through which South Coast has steered taxpayer money that was theoretically meant to be used to reduce emissions into the coffers of fossil fuel producers.
“The agency has over the years really shifted away from being a regulator towards being a funding body, being a pass-through for funds for polluters,” said Mark Lopez, the community organizer. “Essentially it’s just about shifting dollars around and creating a cycle where polluters pay and then they get their money back for their infrastructure.”