Saturday

7th Dec 2019

Interview

Learn from US on emissions, says former EPA chief

  • The US EPA was set up following widespread air pollution in cities like Los Angeles, seen here in 1973. It has much more oversight than the EU commission over car type approvals (Photo: USEPA/NARA)

Margo Oge left the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) four years ago, but she has not forgotten the lessons she learned there.

Oge, who was director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, came to Brussels last week with a clear message for Europe: be much tougher on car companies that are polluting more than the legal limits.

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  • Margo Oge: 'In the US it's almost impossible to use a defeat device' (Photo: Fortune Brainstorm E)

She told an event organised by environmental lobby group Transport & Environment last Thursday (9 June) that she was “very concerned” the European Union does not have an equivalent to the EPA, the federal watchdog that revealed Volkswagen Group (VW) had been cheating on emissions data last year.

VW had installed a so-called defeat device, which is banned both in the US and in the EU. Such devices defeat the purpose of the emissions control system, which in turn is supposed to prevent the car from producing toxic gases.

Margo Oge told EUobserver in an interview: “In the US, a company, if they are to use a defeat device, like VW, they have to go and ask the regulator: 'EPA, can I use the defeat device?' And we will ask why.”

If a company then says the device is to protect the engine, the EPA would challenge that.

“In Europe, you use defeat device, but you never have to ask the question: can I use it? You never have to get approval. That's why in Europe there was not a defeat device issue with VW, where in the US there is,” she said.

Cheating 'almost impossible' in US

After the VW scandal, the UK and Germany did audits of cars on the road. They found that virtually all tested models had used defeat devices that limit or turn off the emissions control system under certain conditions.

Car manufacturers replied by saying they were allowed to use the defeat devices because of an exception in the EU legislation.

Some car companies were found having installed defeat devices to turn down the emissions system when it is colder than 17C outside – a very normal temperature in Europe, as well as in parts of the US.

“Just imagine you are an engineer for a car company. The easiest thing to do is say: I'm not going to meet the standards,” said Oge.

In the US, carmakers would need to provide some solid evidence to show why a defeat device was necessary. Permission is given “very rarely”.

“We would never give them the defeat device,” said Oge of the car companies with the 17C excuse.

“In Europe though, they never asked for permission. They just did it. Because the law does not require them.

“In the US it's almost impossible to use a defeat device. And if you use it without asking the regulator, then you have penalties.”

The penalty for the use of a defeat device in US can be as high as $37,500 (€33,000) per vehicle.

In Europe, there is no pan-European fine. Instead, this website found that in at least 11 member states the fine is lower than €10,000. Some countries have fines of €1,000, €2,000, or €4,000.

“That's nothing. The fines have to be significant to force these companies to innovate. If your fine is low, then you will continue to cheat,” said Oge.

Cars companies in US feel 'monitored'

Another difference between the US and the EU is how new car models are certified before being allowed on the market.

In Europe, national authorities give certificates known as “type approvals”. Carmakers file for these approvals at national authorities, who often outsource the testing to private companies. The EU Commission has little power to intervene.

“In the US, the car companies do what we call self-certification and they send it to EPA. Then we audit 15 percent of cars before we certify them,” Oge said.

“But the car companies don't know what we are going to audit. If we find there is something wrong, they cannot introduce it in the marketplace. Period.

“Companies think more than once to cheat, because they know they are being monitored.”

Moreover, the EPA also does checks on cars that are already on the road, something that is rare in Europe.

So why did VW also cheat in the US, despite the high risk of getting caught? Oge is unsure.

“The question is, how much did they know? How much did they think about it, who thought about it,” she said.

A statement made by Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller last January, signalled that perhaps they did not think about it enough.

Mueller told National Public Radio his company had “not the right interpretation of the American law”.

Not the first dieselgate

The VW scandal was not the first dieselgate.

In the mid-1990s, EPA found that diesel trucks had higher emissions than allowed.

“There was something peculiar, so the staff came and talked to me, and I said: OK let's go and test all the other engines,” said Oge.

It turned out, the trucks had defeat devices.

“We brought them in, and they paid penalties,” she said.

But that was not the end of the story. The truck companies also had to recall the trucks, and contribute to a fund that would carry out environmental projects.

The EPA was not afraid to use its leverage to make truck companies change their behaviour.

In Europe, we are still waiting for such proactive approach.

One thing is changing, though.

The EU Commission last January announced a reform of the type-approval system. If member states and the EU parliament agree, it would move Europe more towards the American system.

Analysis

EU governments duck responsibility on dieselgate

If VW had cheated on emissions in the Netherlands, its fine would have been just €19,500. “I didn't think about the fines before,” the Dutch transport minister says.

EU and US in talks on car emissions cheats

The EU and US have started talks on how to prevent emissions cheating by car companies such as Volkswagen, with a US regulator saying some engineering choices accepted in Europe "don't make sense".

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