The Oil Industry’s Covert Campaign to Rewrite American Car Emissions Rules

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When the Trump administration laid out a plan this year that would eventually allow cars to emit more pollution, reports The New York Times, automakers, the obvious winners from the proposal, balked. The changes, they said, went too far even for them.

But it turns out that there was a hidden beneficiary of the plan that was pushing for the changes all along: the nation’s oil industry.

In Congress, on Facebook and in statehouses nationwide, Marathon Petroleum, the country’s largest refiner, worked with powerful oil-industry groups and a conservative policy network financed by the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch to run a stealth campaign to roll back car emissions standards, a New York Times investigation has found.

report released at the  First WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health earlier this year found that air pollution – both ambient and household – is estimated to cause 7 million deaths per year, 5.6 million deaths are from noncommunicable diseases and 1.5 million from pneumonia. The wider economic impacts of premature deaths due to ambient air pollution amount to US$ 5.7 trillion in welfare losses, or 4.4% of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2016.  Motor vehicles are a primary cause of ambient pollution. The Trump-Marathon plan to allow more automobile pollution will increase this health and economic burden, as well as contribute to global warming.

Corporate Efforts to Derail Mass Transit

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In 1985, two urban policy scholars, J. Allen Whitt and Glenn Yago,  wrote:

The urban transportation systems that carry us around are not solely the result of technological innovation or efficiency. They are also a product of the rising and sinking political and market power of industrial interest groups, the changing relations among social classes, the politics of urban development struggles, and the inherent dynamics of the economic system… These factors, particularly corporate control of transportation policy, have profoundly shaped urban streetcar, automobile, bus, and rail transport in the United States during this century. We conclude that this private dominance over urban transportation policy has often led to narrow, profit-seeking behavior that has thwarted the development of more effective public transit.

This week, The New York Times reported that in the last few years Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group financed by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat plans to expand or improve mass transit in  Little Rock, Phoenix, Nashville, southeast Michigan,  and central Utah. The group has also contributed to effort to defeat more than two dozen transit-related measures such as states proposals to raise gas taxes to fund transit or transportation infrastructure.

“Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry”,  Ashley Robbins a transportation researcher at Virginia Tech, told The New York Times. “But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them.”   Although Americans for Prosperity opposes pubic spending on mass transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.  Koch brother-owned industries produce gasoline, asphalt, seatbelts, tires and other auto parts, businesses that could be harmed by new investments in mas transit.

Public health research shows that improving mass transit and reducing automobile use can  bring multiple health and environmental benefits:  less premature mortality from lung disease, fewer asthma symptoms, more physical activity and less sedentary time, fewer injuries and deaths from auto crashes, more social interactions and less isolation, less road rage, more walkable and attractive  cities, less air pollution, reduced carbon emissions, less urban sprawl.

Despite these benefits, for more than a century public policy at the federal, regional, state and local levels has been disproportionately influenced by commercial interests that favor increased automobile use over the well-being of our population and our environment.  Public health professionals and researchers need to explore new ways to bring this debate about democracy, health and the environment into the policy and political arenas.

Automobile Advertising by the Numbers: Promoting Chronic Diseases and Injury, Pollution and Unlivable Cities

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A Cadillac Escalade, a General Motors Sports Utility Vehicle Photo Credit 

In the The Hidden Costs of Cars, posted on Medium, Todd Medema summarizes some of the ways that automobile use in the United States harm health, the environment and the pleasures of city living.  As President Trump promotes expansion of the automobile industry and relaxation of emissions and pollution controls and the auto industry increasingly relies for profits on the more polluting SUVs and light trucks, is the United States poised for a rise in auto-related harms?

The auto industry defends its promotion of more polluting vehicles as simply giving the American people what they want.  But an examination of advertising expenditures over the last decade shows that the industry spends heavily to shape those choices.  As with tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food, the choices consumers make are influenced by what’s available on the market and the content and volume of advertising.  A look at the numbers reveals the scope of these efforts:

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn 2016, the ten largest auto makers in the United States spent $15.5 billion dollars on advertising. General Motors was the biggest spender, with almost $3.8 billion allocated to advertising.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn 2015, light trucks and SUVs accounted for 63% of vehicles sold in the United States, up from 17% in 1980. The number of vehicles sold increased more than fivefold, from about 2 million vehicles to about 11 million.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMAn automaker earns about $1,500 to $2,000 for a passenger car, said Jeff Windau, an auto industry analyst at investment house Edward Jones & Co.  “You contrast that with $10,000 to $13,000 on a truck. You can definitely see that the trucks and SUVs are driving the profitability of the automakers.”  In 2016, General Motors generated 100 percent of its U.S. profit from large SUVs and pickup trucks, according to a report from Morgan Stanley Research.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn 2015, the top seven global auto advertisers—Volkswagen, General Motors, Daimler AG, ford, Toyota Fiat Chrysler and BMW spent almost $32 billion on advertising, contributing to increased auto and SUV purchases around the world.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMIn U.S. mass media and digital advertising in 2016, automotive advertising was the second largest category, outspent only by retail chains.

Screen Shot 2018-05-16 at 5.09.50 PMFor each fatality avoided for an SUV or light-truck occupant, studies show,  more than four fatalities are inflicted on others. Furthermore, SUVs (as well as pickup trucks) were more often involved in pedestrian deaths, and upon accidents a higher pedestrian injury severity score was obtained. Light trucks and vans (including SUVs) were four times as likely to be associated with fatal injury of young children. SUVs and light trucks emit more pollution and air pollution accounts for roughly one out of nine deaths worldwide, or 11.2 percent of global deaths.  As SUV sales increase in the United States, Europe and China, these nations may face more difficulty in reducing pollution-related deaths and disease, a problem also confronting  low and middle income countries.

VW Poisons People, Monkeys and the Air We Breathe

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Once again, new revelations about the illegal and deceptive practices of German car makers Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW attract media and public scrutiny. A few recent highlights:

Fortune reported that “Volkswagen’s CEO said he was ‘stunned’ by reports the carmaker had sponsored tests that exposed monkeys and humans to toxic diesel fumes and two years after an emissions cheating scandal, pledged once again to get to the bottom of the wrongdoing.  Europe’s largest automaker has come under fresh scrutiny after the New York Times said last week that Volkswagen and German peers BMW and Daimler funded an organization called European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT) to commission the tests. The report came more than two years after VW admitted to cheating U.S. diesel emissions tests, sparking the biggest business crisis in its history, and pledged sweeping changes to ensure such misconduct never happened again.

The New York Times reported that in 2014 scientists in an Albuquerque laboratory conducted an unusual experiment: Ten monkeys squatted in airtight chambers, watching cartoons for entertainment as they inhaled fumes from a diesel Volkswagen Beetle. The details of the Albuquerque experiment have been disclosed in a lawsuit brought against Volkswagen in the United States, offering a rare window into the world of industry-backed academic research. The organization that commissioned the study, the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, received all of its funding from Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. It shut down last year amid controversy over its work. It also produced a skeptical assessment of data showing that diesel pollution far exceeded permitted levels in cities like Barcelona, Spain.

According to The Washington Post, the study by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT) was never published, and the research institute overseeing it has since been dissolved. All three carmakers involved in the study — Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen — distanced themselves from the research after the studies were disclosed. But the research institute behind the controversial tests on monkeys was founded by Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen and automotive components supplier Bosch, which has raised questions over the extent to which experiments with humans was backed by the three major carmakers, too.

Another account of the VW diesel emissions is featured on a new Netflix series “Dirty Money” an investigative series that exposes “brazen acts of corporate corruption and greed.”  The first episode, Hard NOx,  examines  the VW deception on emissions.

What Exon Mobil Didn’t Say about Climate Change

Based on a review of documents detailing what Exon Mobil knew about the company’s  role in climate change, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, writing in The New York Times,  conclude that “Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public.” Their analysis is published in Environmental Research Letters.  A coalition of state attorneys general and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating whether the company lied to the public and investors about what it knew about the dangers of climate change.  Making corporations liable for misleading investors about scientific evidence may be a valuable strategy for public health advocates seeking to reduce harmful corporate practices.

Audi Engineer Implicates Superiors in Diesel Case, Lawyer Says

A cloud of suspicion hanging over Volkswagen thickened, reports The New York Times,  after a lawyer for a jailed former engineer said his client implicated top managers of the German carmaker’s Audi luxury brand in a continuing diesel cheating scandal.  Statements and evidence provided to German investigators by the former head of thermodynamics in Audi’s engine development department suggest that knowledge of emissions fraud reached higher in the ranks of management than Volkswagen has admitted. No members of the company’s management board have been charged, although investigations are continuing.

Diesel emissions kill. What is the car industry going to do about it?

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The European Environment Agency estimates that 75,000 Europeans died prematurely as a result of nitrogen oxide poisoning in 2012 – among them 22,000 in Italy, 14,000 in Great Britain and 10,000 in Germany. In an attempt to protect the health of EU citizens, nitrogen oxide emissions limits have been established across Europe. Since 2010, that limit has been set at an annual maximum of 40 micrograms of NOx per cubic meter. Beyond that, all automobiles produced after January 2000 have been required to meet NOx emission reduction standards. Yet automakers have shamelessly flouted such emissions and health protection standards, reports Gears of Biz, a technology newsletter. Automobiles were equipped with software designed to trick laboratory ratings tests, and in normal driving conditions emissions far exceeded legal limits. A 1,500-euro ($1,750) fix could save thousands of lives – but carmakers are unwilling to pay.

German Carmakers Face Potential New Scandal Over Antitrust Issues

Germany’s high-end carmakers face a potentially destructive new scandal after European antitrust authorities said on Saturday that they were looking into allegations that Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW colluded illegally to hold down the prices of crucial technology, including emissions equipment, reports The New York Times. The emissions scandal, which came to light nearly two years ago, may now be spreading to rivals. Growing awareness of the harmful effects of diesel fumes has prompted European cities to consider bans of diesel cars and has led consumers to reject cars with diesel engines, a largely German innovation that traditionally accounted for half the market. The backlash could take on a new, far broader dimension if it turns out that the excess emissions were the result of illegal collusion by a de facto cartel. The investigation could also lead to billions of euros in fines.

The ‘Job-Killing’ Fiction Behind Trump’s Retreat on Fuel Economy Standards


When President Trump traveled to Michigan last week to announce that his administration will reevaluate (and almost certainly weaken) a key environmental achievement of the past decade — new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for cars and light trucks — he alleged that “industry-killing regulations” had contributed to a loss of jobs in the U.S. automobile sector. The truth is, however, writes Yale Environment 360 that there is no factual basis for the claim that stricter standards have killed jobs. There is, however, abundant evidence that these regulations have saved Americans billions of dollars at the pump, bolstered U.S. energy independence, fostered automotive innovation, and led to major reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Public health impact of excess nitrous oxides emissions from Volkswagen diesel passenger vehicles in Germany

A report in Environmental Health Letters estimates that 1,200 people in Europe will die prematurely because of excess nitrous oxide emissions released in Germany after Volkswagen installed “defeat device” software that allowed the cars to cheat on emissions test.  The MIT authors also estimate that by recalling and repairing the affected cars in Germany to meet current emissions standards by the end of 2017, Volkswagen could avert 2,600 additional premature deaths and save 4.1 billion euros in health costs.

Full citation: Chossière GP, Malina R, Ashok A, et al. Public health impacts of excess NOx emissions from Volkswagen diesel passenger vehicles in Germany. Environ. Res. Lett. 2017; 12:1-14.