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Volkswagen settlement could boost electric, natural gas vehicles in Minnesota

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Here's what you need to know about Minnesota's Volkswagen settlement.
Markus Schreiber | AP 2015

Some 9,300 Volkswagen diesels have been driving around the state over the years, spewing an extra 600 tons of nitrogen oxides into the air. 

That contributes to ground-level ozone, which can exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD. 

Now, Minnesota has a chance to eliminate 600 tons of NOx through the federal government's settlement with Volkswagen over its emissions scandal

The state is set to receive nearly $47 million to mitigate the pollution Volkswagen diesel vehicles wrongfully emitted.

Here's what you need to know about the settlement:

How can the money be spent? 

Most of the money must be spent on making diesel vehicles run cleaner or converting diesel vehicles to run on electricity, natural gas or propane, which would dramatically reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. 

Mark Spanton displays the nozzle for compressed natural gas fuel.
Mark Spanton, key accounts manager for CenterPoint Energy, displays the nozzle for a compressed natural gas fueling station in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

States have to tell a federally appointed trustee how they intend to spend the money before the money starts flowing. That process could take many months. Besides mitigating pollution from diesel vehicles, 15 percent of the sum can be spent on electric vehicle infrastructure. 

How much pollution can you prevent with $47 million? 

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials are confident they will be able to go beyond the 600 tons of nitrogen oxide required by the settlement. They'll do that by asking businesses and local governments if they'd be willing to share the cost of converting diesel fleet vehicles to natural gas, propane or electricity. It's a complicated calculation. 

It costs a lot of money for a brand-new electric truck or bus. But if your company was planning to replace its fleet soon anyway, this is a way to upgrade to something cleaner and tap some public money to make the switch.

Another part of the calculation is how much money could be saved over time on fuel and maintenance. 

Electric vehicles are said to be cheaper to maintain, for instance. On the other hand, if a company is looking to replace its entire fleet of diesel trucks for electric ones, state officials would weigh the emissions per dollar saved compared to replacing a giant, dirty diesel engine like a locomotive or tugboat. 

Besides getting the most emissions reductions for its dollars, what else is the state considering? 

The settlement requires spending decisions to consider environmental justice factors. 

For instance, if one proposal called for replacing a fleet of diesel vehicles operating in the outer suburbs and a similar proposal called for replacing a fleet of vehicles operating in a low-income community of color in the urban core, the latter project would likely get the funding. 

Air pollution has been shown to disproportionately affect certain communities, and health disparities can exacerbate those circumstances. For example, a ZIP code that includes a large part of north Minneapolis, a low-income community of color, has the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. 

I own a VW diesel car. Can I get money from the state? 

No. The state's portion of the settlement is actually just a small part of a giant sum negotiated by the federal government. The bulk of that is going to VW car owners to trade their cars in or get them fixed. 

Could the Legislature get involved in the spending of the state's VW settlement funds? 

It could, but there are specific requirements on how the money can be spent, so lawmakers won't be able to use it for the state budget, for instance. MPCA officials are asking anyone with questions or comments about how the money will be distributed to contact them

Will this settlement help Minnesota address greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change? 

Not directly. Burning gasoline and diesel does release greenhouse gases, but the pollutants at the center of the VW settlement are nitrogen oxides (NOx). But some of the actions supported by the settlement, such as converting diesel vehicles to electric vehicles and adding electric vehicle infrastructure could also help the state reduce greenhouse gases — as long as the electricity being produced to run those vehicles is not carbon-intensive. Transportation emissions are the second largest source of Minnesota's greenhouse gas emissions, and a recent study shows the number of vehicle miles traveled in the state has gone up in recent years.

Editor's note: The settlement allows companies and governments to replace their diesel fleets with electric only for larger vehicles like trucks and buses. A description in an earlier version of this story was unclear on that point.