Diesel program praised, but one senator has concerns

Source: By Sean Reilly, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Senate panel yesterday cranked up a fresh bid to reauthorize the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act with a hearing that featured effusive praise for the program’s effectiveness from lawmakers and witnesses alike.

“It shows that when we put our heads together, we can get things done,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of 10 members of the Environment and Public Works Committee who have signed on to S. 747, which would renew the program at $100 million per year through fiscal 2024.

DERA, which dates back to 2005, offers grants and rebates to replace or retrofit school buses and other diesel-powered equipment with newer, cleaner-burning models. In recent years, the program has won the favor of congressional appropriators, who have boosted funding from $50 million in 2016 to $87 million this fiscal year, notwithstanding opposition from both the Obama and Trump administrations.

At yesterday’s hourlong Environment and Public Works hearing, Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said that DERA-funded projects can cut emissions of particulate and nitrogen oxides by more than 90 percent while also reducing greenhouse gas releases.

Since diesel engines are so long-lived, millions of higher-polluting versions remain in use more than a decade after EPA tightened standards for new models, said ranking member Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor. Cleaning up “dirty diesel engines through DERA stands out as a prime example of what works,” he said.

But DERA’s last authorization, which lets lawmakers set policy guidelines and can make it easier to secure appropriations, lapsed at the end of fiscal 2016. Legislation to reauthorize it failed in both the 114th and 115th sessions of Congress. At least one senator, Mike Lee (R-Utah), had previously called the $100 million funding level too high (E&E Daily, Dec. 8, 2016). Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) views DERA as duplicative.

A Lee spokesman did not reply to requests for comment yesterday afternoon on the new bill. In an email, a Lankford aide confirmed his reservations remain, pointing to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report that described federal efforts to combat diesel-fired pollution as “fragmented” across EPA and other agencies. Neither Lankford nor Lee sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

In a short interview after yesterday’s hearing, Barrasso said he wants to proceed with a committee markup of both Carper’s legislation and S. 383, a carbon capture bill, “very quickly.” A similarly bipartisan House version of the DERA measure could be introduced as early as today.

Unusual for an EPA program, DERA has the backing of a robust array of industry and environmental groups. Earlier this week, a 28-member coalition that includes the American Lung Association and Volvo Group North America urged support for reauthorization in a letter to EPW Committee members. Yesterday, the Diesel Technology Forum, another coalition member that represents engine and vehicle manufacturers, also weighed in separately with its backing.

The hearing featured three coalition representatives as witnesses.

“We believe the program is still extremely valuable and needed,” said Dale Krapf, chairman of a Pennsylvania school bus company who spoke on behalf of the National School Transportation Association. Kurt Nagle, president of the American Association of Port Authorities, called the program key to “incentivizing and expanding” air quality improvement efforts around ports.

As emissions standards tighten in response to the spread of electric vehicles, the federal government can play “a major role in helping current diesel owners clean up their engines and improve their image,” said Timothy Johnson, a consultant and former director of emerging technologies for Corning Inc., a New York-based firm that makes pollution control equipment.