Dunkin' Donuts fast-charger for electric vehicles. Image courtesy of Dunkin' Donuts.

As part of a historic federal settlement following their emissions cheating scandal in 2016, German automaker Volkswagon agreed to pay $2.9 billion into a trust fund to support emissions-reducing projects across the United States.

Pennsylvania received $188 million from the trust, the fifth highest amount in the nation. For environmental advocates in Pittsburgh and nationwide, the money represented a chance to speed up a wider transition to green energy.

“VW breached the trust of its customers and put the health of the public and the environment at risk,” said Emma Horst-Martz, a researcher from the PennPIRG Education Fund. “But from its deception emerged an opportunity for states like Pennsylvania to put a down payment on the transition to a cleaner and healthier all-electric transportation future.”

Now, some advocates worry that state leaders are failing to seize the moment.

Yesterday, the environmental research and advocacy organizations PennEnvironment and the PennPIRG Education Fund released a study examining which states and territories are best applying the settlement funds to green energy and assigning grades from A to F.

Pennsylvania’s grade? F.

In May 2018, Gov. Tom Wolf established the Driving PA Forward grant and rebate program to disperse the funds. The program made several gifts over the past year, including $8.5 million in funds announced in early August.

But the report’s authors argue that the state program has overwhelmingly favored simply upgrading vehicles to more fuel-efficient diesel systems at the expense of investments in more ambitious green infrastructure.

“Climate change is one of the most urgent issues facing our planet today, and air pollution is a continuing problem in the Pittsburgh region,” said Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania Director for the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center. “It’s critical that our elected officials are using every tool in the toolbox to reduce harmful pollution from cars, trucks and buses. This fund is one of those tools.”

The most recent round of grants in August did include a handful of investments in electric vehicles, including a $1,104,000 grant for the Port Authority of Allegheny County to purchase two new electric buses. But the vast majority of the funds go toward communities purchasing new fossil fuel-based technologies, which many activists argue are antiquated and carry a high human cost.

“By directing funding toward zero-emissions public transit infrastructure, Pennsylvania can improve the health of some of the most vulnerable residents of Allegheny County,” said Dean Mougianis, a board member with Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

In an email to NEXTpittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection Deputy Communications Director Deborah Klenotic pushed back against the criticism. “In areas where EV (electric vehicle) charging infrastructure isn’t as built out, repowering trucks and buses with clean diesel or CNG (compress natural gas) achieves needed NOx (nitrogen oxide) reductions now,” she said. “But we certainly aren’t precluding electric.”

Klenotic pointed out that Driving PA Forward offers generous reimbursements for diesel to electric projects. “We hope the technology for electric bus and truck engines will become more available and cost-effective to enable more project applicants to pursue this option,” she said. “Right now we get very few applications for such projects, but hope to see more in the future.”

But rather than waiting for applications, environmental advocates want Harrisburg to take the lead.

“If we want to protect the health of our communities and our climate, we must transition to zero-emission vehicles as quickly as possible,” said Deemer. “When it comes to spending the VW settlement money, Pennsylvania is not making the grade.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.