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State seeks input on spending money from Volkswagen lawsuit

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A Clean Air Act violation by Volks-wagen and the resulting federal settlement means millions of dollars for electric vehicles and charging stations in New Mexico.

David Hartung, an electrician, looks at the electric vehicle charge station at PNM during an Electric Car Open House in November 2014. The state is seeking public input on a plan to use funds from a federal settlement with Volkswagen for more alternative-fueled vehicles and charging stations. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

The New Mexico Environmental Department has opened the public comment period for a plan to address how money from the Volkswagen settlement should be spent in the state. In the Beneficiary Mitigation Plan, the NMED recommends the funds be used for local governments and others to purchase alternative-fueled vehicles and electric vehicle charging stations.

A federal settlement was reached in 2017 after Volkswagen admitted misrepresenting the emissions levels of its vehicles by installing illegal devices on cars. The settlement provides $2.7 billion to all 50 states and Puerto Rico to reduce harmful vehicle emissions like nitrogen oxide (NOx) and ozone.

New Mexico Air Quality Bureau Chief Liz Bisbey-Kuehn told the Journal that New Mexico had received $18 million from the settlement. Last year’s funding cycle awarded nearly $6 million for projects. This new plan proposes how the next $5 million should be spent.

The state wants to commit $2.7 million of the fund to building charging stations for light-duty electric vehicles. Albuquerque has 47 public electric vehicle charging ports. New Mexico has more than 200.

“This plan targets rural locations in the state where we can build electric vehicle charging stations,” Bisbey-Kuehn said. “We want to attract tourists and businesses to those areas. We’re excited to have this funding and see which projects we get.”

Last year’s funding from the Volks-wagen settlement totaled $5,964,208. Projects from that cycle reduced nitrogen oxide by a total of 117.79 tons, according to the New Mexico Environmental Department.

The money was used to replace 31 school buses in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, 44 school buses in Gallup and McKinley County, 10 solid waste trucks in the South Valley, 20 delivery trucks in the Albuquerque area, four heavy-duty cement trucks in Albuquerque and one San Juan County public works truck, and to purchase three electric tractors and three charging stations at the Albuquerque International Sunport.

In a news release, New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney called the state’s plan for the settlement funds “a win for all New Mexicans.”

The NMED suggests 75% of the settlement funding go to on-road fleet projects. That means replacing local freight trucks, school buses, shuttle or transit buses with alternative-fueled vehicles or replacing the vehicle engines with alternative-fuel engines.

An electric vehicle charging station in Downtown Albuquerque. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Those are generally the highest emitting vehicles and the highest volume of vehicles,” Bisbey-Kuehn said, adding that replacing or repowering those vehicles would likely have the most impact in reducing harmful vehicle emissions.

Abhaya Datye, a distinguished professor of chemical and biological engineering at UNM, works to make catalysts for engines that help cut down on vehicle emissions. Datye said the state’s plan to replace diesel vehicles and create more electric vehicle charging stations would be beneficial, but there’s also a catch.

“The impact should be immediate, because you won’t have any emissions from the actual electric vehicles,” Datye said. “But there are still emissions from where that electricity is originally produced. So you haven’t really cut down on pollution, you’ve just moved the pollution around the state.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order in January committing the state to joining the U.S. Climate Alliance and creating a New Mexico Climate Change Task Force.

“That executive order tasks us with reducing NOx, ozone, methane and particulates in the state,” Bisbey-Kuehn said. “This funding gives us a way to do that. All the projects must quantify how much they would reduce emissions.”

Emission reductions from on-road projects in the plan were calculated using Argonne National Laboratory’s HeavyDuty Vehicle Emissions Calculator, and the EPA’s Diesel Emissions Quantifier was used to calculate emission reductions for non-road projects.

The funding is available to public and private entities. Non-government entities may apply to receive funding from the trust, but nongovernment equipment and projects are eligible for a lesser percentage of the fund.

In 2017, the NMED hosted state-wide public input meetings about the mitigation plan. The public comment period for the revised plan ends on June 29.

Bisbey-Kuehn said the state wants public input to receive suggestions about areas the plan hasn’t considered targeting and how the funding should be used. The public can view the plan on the Environmental Department’s website and submit comments to vw.info@state.nm.us.

After the public comment period ends, the state will revise and finalize the plan and begin the competitive project selection process in mid-July.

Bisbey-Kuehn said the projects are scored based on how much they would reduce NOx emissions, how much money they request and how they would improve environmental justice areas – locations with a large minority or low-income population.

“The EPA has a mapping tool that uses demographic data to determine those environmental justice areas,” Bisbey-Kuehn said.

Because of the complex application process for electric vehicle charging station projects, the state will keep the project application window open until October.

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