Dan Morain

A lonely voice speaks out again

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn speaks to the media Sept. 22, 2015, at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn speaks to the media Sept. 22, 2015, at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. Action Press

As the dimensions of the diesel scandal become evident and disgraced Volkswagen executives apologize for their lies and resign, Paul Wuebben feels vindicated though not particularly happy.

Wuebben is one of those career government officials known to experts in his arcane field but not to the rest of us. Almost without exception, whenever his name appeared in public in the 1990s and 2000s, he would be talking about the perils of diesel exhaust. He raised his concerns in testimony before Congress and the California Air Resources Board, and even in a speech to petroleum refiners.

Having grown up in Los Angeles and spent three decades working for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Wuebben had breathed too much bad L.A. air to believe that Volkswagen was building “clean diesel” engines.

Last week, when regulators concluded that Volkswagen’s too-good-to-be-true claims turned out to be just that, he spoke up again. The tone is less I-told-you-so, and more a plea that regulators reconsider decisions that have led to the widespread reintroduction of diesel-powered cars.

The fraud perpetrated by VW on consumers who thought they were buying zippy cars with a green halo is appalling. The company’s use of defeat devices to mislead regulators and the collection of $51 million of federal subsidies could be criminal.

Wuebben is most bothered by the threat to our lungs by diesel exhaust from cars that spewed carcinogenic particulates and smog-forming nitrogen oxide at 10 to 40 times legal levels. He knows what he’s talking about, having gone to the Harvard School of Public Health, been a World Health Organization fellow, and served as clean fuels officer for the South Coast air district.

“The lies that kept building on each other, it amplifies the immorality of it all,” Wuebben said by phone. “This is not cutting corners. This is a complete fabrication. It is public health larceny. A direct theft of clean air.”

Wuebben, who retired from the South Coast air district in 2011 and works as an alternative fuels consultant, saw much of the lobbying that led to the rise of diesel. His was a lonely voice, though not the only one. Unlike the others, however, he was a close adviser to Alan Lloyd, a respected scientist who rose to become Air Resources Board chair under Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Lloyd made national news in October 2002 by telling a Wall Street Journal reporter that California would consider diesel-powered cars. The following month, the author of a Los Angeles Times op-ed likened Lloyd’s statement to John Muir urging clear-cutting in Sequoia National Forest. Wuebben sent Lloyd a long memo telling him why he was wrong. In Lloyd’s view, so long as diesel manufacturers met emission standards, state regulators had no grounds by which to bar them.

Wuebben counts Lloyd as a friend and one of the best bosses he ever had, but believes he was swayed by an industry campaign to overcome regulatory and public reluctance to diesel technology. German manufacturers brought California regulators to Munich and Stuttgart. German engineers and executives came here to win over officials and environmental organizations.

VW, he said, was a big part of the effort. The People’s Car promises of clean diesel technology at affordable prices played into California regulators’ goals as they shifted attention in the middle 2000s toward battling climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Diesel engines do emit less greenhouse gases than gasoline-powered engines. But climate change is a long-term fight. The damage caused by diesel exhaust is more immediate; it can lead to chronic bronchitis, asthma and lung cancer.

In 1998, scientists urged the Air Resources Board to declare diesel exhaust to be a toxic air contaminant, stating: “Based on available scientific information, a level of diesel exhaust exposure below which non-carcinogenic effects are anticipated has not been identified.” The air board agreed, despite lobbying by the trucking industry and objections from 66 of this state’s 120 legislators.

In the middle 2000s, VW was selling diesel cars in 49 states, but not here in the nation’s largest consumer market. It wasn’t until the 2009 model year that VW met this state’s emission standards. That also was the year when, according to VW’s mea culpa, it installed the software that allowed the cars to pass smog tests, but would mute emission controls once the tests were complete.

Volkswagen acknowledges having installed the devices in 11 million cars worldwide, though the number of diesels in the U.S. is relatively small – 480,000, including 50,000 to 72,000 in California.

The depth of Volkswagen’s deceit has not been fully revealed, but much will involve California. VW sought to evade detection by regulators here, so it could gain access to this rich market. Regulators, in turn, saw the potential of an ally in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions. Fraud ensued, despite one man’s lonely voice.

There’s no indication that other diesel manufacturers have tried to trick regulators. But Wuebben believes regulators should rethink the use of diesel. Once again, however, he faces the inexorable forces of lobbying and economic interests.