Colorado likely to snag more than $61 million for Volkswagen’s misdeeds

The Volkswagen, once associated with immaculate engineering and folksy buses full of Beatles fans, is about to reach a thud in its fall from grace. And Colorado clean energy advocates have some ideas about how the state can take advantage.

Judge Charles Breyer today said he was “strongly inclined” to hand down a $15 billion settlement between the automaker and the U.S. Department of Justice. He will make an official decision before October 25th.  

The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project and COPIRG, two advocacy groups, held an event this morning outside the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment – the agency that will receive and disburse $61 million from the settlement – to say what the department should do with the funds.

They want the state to spend the money on 60 electric charging stations on Colorado’s highways and upgrade about 100 buses from diesel to electric.

In September 2015, Volkswagen was exposed for having installed software in its vehicles that allowed them to cheat on emissions tests. Today’s settlement marks the culmination of a year punctuated by revelations of a scandal that analysts say will cause 59 premature deaths by adding particulate and ozone pollution.

The $15 billion Volkswagen will have to pony up will be paid out in three separate sums: $10 billion to the owners of its polluting cars, $2 billion to an investment fund for zero-emission vehicles and $2.7 billion to a fund designed to reduce the pollution the cheating cars generated.

It’s that last fund that COPIRG and SWEEP weighed in on. It will be distributed among states using a formula based on how many toxic vehicles are registered. Colorado’s nearly 10,000 pollution-spewing vehicles qualify the state for at least $61 million to be spent cutting transportation pollution.

“Colorado should seize this opportunity to hit the accelerator for electric vehicles,” said SWEEP’s Will Toor. He further expressed opposition to trying to make diesel cleaner, saying that the proposed infrastructure for electric vehicles will permit drivers of those cars to travel freely around Colorado.

The groups’ proposal calls for 15 percent of the $61 million, or $9.2 million, to go to building a network of electric vehicle charging stations, and for the remainder to replace diesel buses with electric ones.

Marchus Moench, a Colorado resident, bought a Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagon TDI in 2011 for $32,000. He is an environmentalist who believed the car was, as reputed, efficient, durable and emission-light. In fact, the model won the Green Car Journal’s Green Car of the Year award in 2009. That award was later rescinded.

Last fall, Moench learned his car wasn’t the environmentally conscious choice and may actually be emitting 40 times federal pollution standards.

“It was infuriating,” Moensch said.

He went to Volkswagen headquarters in Washington, DC, to try and get the company to buy his car back, but with no success. Now it sits in his driveway.

According to Volkswagen’s website, the company eventually will buy back cars like Moensch’s for about $24,000. In the meantime, he’s still paying for insurance and registration on a car he never uses. He bought a Nissan Leaf for $30,0000 a few months after the allegations against Volkswagen came out.

“I was lucky enough that I had the ability to do that,” Moensch said. “Not everyone has that luxury.”

Despite his frustrations, Moensch has a positive message for his fellow Coloradans. “We have a big opportunity here. We could really transition to zero-emissions transportation,” he said.

The CDPHE is currently holding a public comment period, ending November 21st, for Coloradans to voice opinions on how the settlement money should be used. It’s hosting a public hearing on November 7th at its Denver office to receive comments.
While the settlement is a big step toward resolution, Volkswagen has not yet offered a way to fix defective cars that regulators find satisfactory. After the settlement is finalized, it will enter negotiations with the EPA to either fix or buy back the problematic cars.

Photo Credit: Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent