Remember dieselgate? The Volkswagen scandal that led to huge emissions of harmful air pollution from their cars, criminal charges, and a $30 billion mea culpa? Well, dieselgate may be small compared to the new emissions scandal that is playing out across the country. This time, however, the emissions cheating would be explicitly allowed by Congress.
As with the VW scandal, it involves so-called emission defeat devices – equipment that shuts off a vehicle’s emissions control system, allowing the car to spew hazardous pollution into the air. These defeat devices are marketed to amateur racers (and sometimes the general public who think it’s fun to “roll coal” and blow black smoke at Priuses). Manufacturers of these defeat devices are pushing Congress to let them off the hook for selling products that are used illegally in our communities, and so far many in Congress are siding against clean air.
What do defeat devices do and who wants them?
All vehicles on public roads must have pollution control systems to remove dangerous air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and smog precursors (carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons) from vehicle exhaust. And this is a really good thing. The EPA estimates that current pollution control systems will prevent up to 2,000 premature deaths, avoid 2,200 hospital admissions, and eliminate 19,000 asthma attacks annually because some of these pollutants cause lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory harm.
Why would someone want to turn off their vehicle pollution controls? One popular reason is for amateur car racing. We’re not talking NASCAR here, as purpose-built race cars are already exempt from this requirement. Instead these are local races where people “convert” their regular cars into race cars to use at tracks. And if people want to modify a car that they use just for racing so that it goes a little faster on the track, it’s probably not that big of a deal.
Out of the millions of vehicles on the road, only a tiny fraction of them are modified to be used in racing competitions. However, if people bypass the emission controls on cars they use on our streets on a regular basis, that’s a different story: it imposes unnecessary pollution on the drivers’ neighbors and it’s against the law. So if device manufacturers are knowingly selling defeat devices for off-track use, they should be prosecuted.
How big of a deal could this be? Big. One settlement that the EPA made with H&S Performance states that they sold over 100,000 devices and that the pollution from those devices would be nearly TWICE the NOx pollution put out by VW diesel cars from 2008 until they were caught in 2015.[i]
One company, double dieselgate. It’s staggering
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It turns out that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies who are willing to sell people defeat devices that they can put on their own cars. We don’t have a complete handle on the number of devices sold, or how much extra pollution they are spewing out into our communities. But based on the emissions from just H&S Performance, it has the potential to be HUGE. And if manufacturers and retailers of these devices are marketing these defeat devices to the general public for use on our roads, the emissions, and therefore health, impacts could be enormous.
So, what does this have to do with Congress?
Manufacturers of defeat devices have a vested interest in making it difficult for regulators to stymie the illegal use of these defeat devices since the more they sell, the bigger their profits. There are bills in the House (H. 350 ) and Senate (S. 203) called the “RPM Act” that would make it very difficult for the EPA to go after manufacturers of these defeat devices who are clearly selling to people who are using these on their everyday vehicles. It is critical that the EPA maintains the ability to stop manufacturers who aren’t playing by the rules.
In a recent hearing about the RPM Act in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Alexandra Teitz, a consultant for the Sierra Club, dubbed this “DIY Dieselgate”, which is incredibly apt.
There are a lot of Senators and Representatives supporting this bill because the trade association for the manufacturers who make these devices (and other aftermarket parts) is putting in a lot of effort on Capitol Hill. The manufacturers see a challenge to their business model and profitability. And they have put a lot of effort into convincing amateur racers, wrongly, that the EPA intends to stop all amateur racing or take their race cars.
The manufacturers are selling this bill as a clarification of existing law, when in actuality it will make it very hard, if not impossible, for the EPA to do their job and ensure that all Americans have access to clean air – and one way they will do it is to prosecute manufacturers who are clearly selling these defeat devices to individuals who are not using them solely for racing. We need to make sure Congress is aware they are voting for legislation that will put the health of their constituents at risk.
Allowing amateur racers to modify a small number of vehicles that are solely used at the track is one thing – but sanctioning mass marketing of emissions defeat devices that are resulting in deadly air pollution in communities across the country is another. Check out the list of cosponsors for the House and Senate bills to see if your representative is on the bill. If so, please call your representative and ask that they withdraw their support for the RPM Act.
[i] The settlement agreement notes 71,669 short tons (or 65,017 metric tons) of NOx emissions over the lifetime of vehicles with H&S Performance defeat devices installed. An analysis by MIT researchers estimate excess NOX emissions of 36,700 metric tons between 2008 and 2015 from non-compliant 2.0L VW vehicles.