Volkswagen’s plan to promote electric cars in California, part of its penalty for a massive air-pollution scandal, is being sent back for repairs because state officials say it doesn’t do enough to help low-income communities with bad air quality.
The California Air Resources Board directed Volkswagen this week to retool its plan to build charging stations, organize shuttle services and embark on public-relations campaigns to get more Californians to buy zero-emissions vehicles, or ZEVs.
In a letter Wednesday to the carmaker’s new Electrify America subsidiary, air board Executive Officer Richard Corey said Volkswagen must beef up the plan for helping poor communities. Legislators had criticized the plan on those grounds as well; an Assembly budget subcommittee this week passed language that could force the air board to reject the Volkswagen plan if it didn’t provide more benefits to poor communities.
Agency spokesman Stanley Young said the air board hasn’t rejected Volkswagen’s plan but is pressing for improvements. He said CARB had been hearing criticism from lawmakers and the environmental justice community, which seeks to reduce pollution in low-income areas.
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“It’s a clear intent by our board,” said air board member Phil Serna, a Sacramento County supervisor and environmental justice advocate. “What are the implications for disadvantaged communities?”
The agency’s demand for a retooled plan puts Volkswagen’s entire spending program in limbo, including its proposal to designate Sacramento a “Green City.” Under that designation, Volkswagen would spend $44 million in the region on publicity, ride-sharing services and other programs.
Officials from Los Angeles have been campaigning to win Green City status for their city, and Corey said Volkswagen must explain the process it used for choosing the anointed city. So far the company hasn’t said why Sacramento was chosen for such special status.
Corey said he believes Volkswagen can develop a plan that will get the air board’s approval. “We are confident that CARB and Electrify America can continue to work together to build on the (original plan) and arrive at an approvable plan very soon,” Corey wrote.
In the meantime, there’s more work to do.
Critics had accused Volkswagen of short-changing poor communities by installing charging stations only in wealthy cities or along major highways. Under the terms of the air board’s agreement with the carmaker, Volkswagen has to direct 35 percent of its electric-vehicle spending to disadvantaged communities.
In his letter, Corey said the carmaker needs to “explain in more detail the positive impact it expects the investments to make in disadvantaged/underserved communities.”
Advocates for poor communities, many of which suffer from California’s worst air pollution problems, applauded the air board’s move.
“We’re really thankful for the Air Resources Board doing its due diligence,” said Genevieve Gale of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, a group based in Fresno. She said Volkswagen needs to deliver “a better benefit for disadvantaged communities across the state, and especially in the Central Valley.”
Competitors had said Volkswagen’s plan might create a monopoly on charging stations. ChargePoint, which operates vehicle charging stations throughout the state, called the air board’s letter “a step in the right direction.”
A spokeswoman said Volkswagen is reviewing the air board’s comments.
Volkswagen pleaded guilty to criminal charges after admitting it planted “defeat device” software in its diesel cars to cheat on emissions tests. Besides agreeing to spend more than $14 billion fixing and buying back cars, it said it would spend $2 billion promoting zero-emissions vehicles nationwide. That includes $800 million in California, where many of its diesel cars were sold. Air board engineers were instrumental in uncovering the scandal.