Our air is a little dirtier thanks to Volkswagen

Photo: Julian Stratenschulte, AP


By now you have probably heard about the Volkawagen scandal. The world’s largest car company used software in its diesel vehicles to illegally skirt emissions testing. Since Volkswagen made that announcement on Monday, CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned, its stock fell to a three-year low, and the company faces up to $18 billion in fines from the Environmental Protection Agency.

But let’s take a few steps back. Cars have internal combustion engines that burn fossil fuels and emit air pollution via tailpipes. (At least, those cars that we didn’t celebrate during National Drive Electric Week do.) Two air pollutants that comes from cars are nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). NOx and VOCs combine in the atmosphere to produce ground level ozone. Ground level ozone is a harmful pollutant regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. (If you’re enjoying this little lesson, may I recommend Ozone Theater?)

Because ground level ozone isn’t emitted directly into the atmosphere, we control it by controlling NOx and VOC emissions from mobile sources (cars) and stationary sources (power plants, refineries, etc.). In Houston, we have had mandatory controls for NOx and VOCs in place since the early 1980’s. This is why we have emissions testing as part of our vehicle inspections in Houston.

California has vehicle emissions testing too. California also has the California Air Resources Board (CARB), a state regulatory agency that is far more aggressive than the EPA about regulating sources of air pollution within its borders (TCEQ take note).

In 2014, a clean air organization known as the International Council on Clean Transportation began an investigation into why Volkswagen’s diesel vehicles seemed to pollute while driving, but not during emissions tests. In May of 2014, CARB and EPA quietly opened an investigation into the matter. The investigation determined that Volkswagen vehicles were outfitted with software that detected when a vehicle was undergoing emissions tests and responded by cutting emissions, likely by reducing the flow of fuel to the engine. In other words, the only time that a Volkswagen diesel complied with emissions requirements was when it was undergoing testing. At all other times, emissions could be forty times higher than what Volkswagen represented. Diesel engines are particularly large sources of nitrogen oxides due to higher operating temperatures compared to gasoline engines.

Affected models are Volkswagens and Audis manufactured between 2009 and 2015 and equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged diesel engine. Initially only the 482,000 of these vehicles in the United States were implicated in the scandal. It has recently emerged, though, that 11 million vehicles worldwide were affected. Owners of these vehicles can expect recalls at the least. Some owners are already demanding full refunds from Volkswagen.

There is one takeaway from this story: clean air organizations will always save the day.

Seriously though, if there are companies as unscrupulous as Volkswagen who will lie and cheat to avoid complying with regulations designed to clean up our air and protect our lives, what chance do we have? Only with vigilant oversight by organizations like the International Council on Clean Transportation and regulators like the California Air Resources Board can we hope to keep up.

This is a sad day for clean air. We can only hope that other automakers are not eventually implicated in this scandal. For now, we choose to see Volkswagen as the lawbreaking outlier that it is.