By Cole Graber-Mitchell
MN350 climate justice intern

Do you remember when Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests? When the company installed illegal defeat devices into 11 million diesel vehicles that then emitted as much as 40 times more than permitted by law of NOx, a powerful air pollutant? The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency does, because the agency is deciding how to spend $47 million from a settlement Volkswagen reached with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And instead of spending the money on replacing old diesel trucks, buses, and cars with zero-emission, electric vehicles, the MPCA has a plan to fund more outdated fossil fuel vehicles.

Pollution from transportation is the biggest national contributor to climate change, and the transportation sector is the biggest source of emissions in Minnesota. Air pollution is extremely harmful to our communities  Around the world, 8.8 million people die each year because of air pollution, and that’s not including deaths and injuries from the ever-expanding climate crisis we face. If we’re going to protect our climate, make our world better for future generations, and save millions of lives, we need to act now.

However, the current plan is to buy more and more diesel, propane, and compressed natural gas vehicles, despite the fact that they pollute far more, are outdated faster, and cost more over the long term than zero-emission vehicles.

For example, electric buses charged on Minnesota’s current grid pollute about 33% to 50% as much as diesel buses and save about $6000 per year in operating and fuel costs. In some parts of the country, electric buses pollute less per mile than gas-burning personal cars, and when charged with renewable energy, they don’t pollute at all. As our energy grid becomes cleaner, electric vehicles become better. Combustion vehicles just keep on polluting.

An electric bus from New Flyer, a Minnesota-based manufacturer. Photo with permission from Joey Coleman (CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

That’s why we need to make sure that the MPCA spends this settlement money well. Even though electric school buses are worlds better for our children and the environment, none of the 111 new school buses funded by phase 1 of the spending plan are electric (all use diesel or propane). Of an estimated total of 345 new vehicles in phase 1, only 26 are electric. This is because of the setup of Minnesota’s plan: a full 70% of the money can be spent on buying more of the combustion vehicles that got us in this situation in the first place.

Diesel school buses are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to harmful emissions. Kids, already at high risk because of their developing respiratory systems, spend lots of time around school buses. According to a study from the Natural Resources Defense Council, diesel exhaust can concentrate inside buses, exposing our children to 23 to 46 times the level deemed significant by federal regulations. Instead of using the Volkswagen money to buy more of these pollution machines, we can invest in clean, electric buses that drastically reduce the levels of carcinogens that school-age children are exposed to.

The MPCA is currently planning phase 2 of the spending and is accepting public comment until Friday, August 16. Phase 1 spent a quarter of the money and phase 2 will spend half: about $23.5 million. Now is the time to make a big difference.

Write to the MPCA now to tell the agency that we need electric school buses. With just a couple minutes of your time, you can help us make a monumental difference: write now to protect our air, health, and future.

Cole Graber-Mitchell is a climate justice intern with MN350. He works on reducing pollution from vehicles in Minnesota, which is the state’s biggest source of air pollution. Raised in Minneapolis and attending college in Massachusetts, he enjoys hanging out in Minnesota’s awesome state and municipal parks and trying to learn to play guitar.