US regulator: Only an EU supervisor can stop another Dieselgate

Once a symbol of the counterculture, now a synonym for pollution. Vintage VW Bug, Spain. [Carlos/Flickr]

Only a central European agency with the resources and power to test cars and trucks will prevent another Dieselgate scandal, the US Environmental Protection Agency director behind the enforcement system that snared Volkswagen has said.

Margo Oge is a former director of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Described as the mother of CO2 standards for cars and trucks in the US, she designed the oversight responsible for exposing Volkswagen’s gaming of emissions tests. Had the scandal not been exposed, the fraud would have continued unchecked in the EU, putting people’s health and the environment at risk.

Oge spoke to News Editor James Crisp at an event hosted by NGO Transport & Environment.

How can we prevent another Dieselgate, particularly in the EU?

I asked a director colleague once, ‘Do you sleep well at night?’ and he just laughed. The EPA is responsible for everything except lawnmowers and airplanes. We have 340 million vehicles and engines in the marketplace and you have to make sure they perform not just at the time of testing but for the duration of their life. We cannot monitor them all.

When I was at the EPA, we found that all the truck manufacturers had been cheating for 20 years. We had a settlement agreement in 2000 of $1billion dollars. I thought that would be the biggest I would see in my lifetime but let’s see what happens with VW.

You need strong programmes. In the US, if you get caught, you are fined $35,000 per engine per day. You need to catch them and penalise them. When it comes to climate change, which is global, your truck here has an impact everywhere with its CO2. With NOx, there will be a health impact on your local community.

VW in the US was just 2% of cars in 2007 but in Europe it is a really big deal. I am very concerned you don’t have one central office like the EPA where someone is responsible for making sure the companies follow the rules.

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How do they do that?

If you are General Motors, you are not allowed to use a defeat device. Period. And if you do use one, you have to come to the EPA and explain why when the temperature is high, the catalyst starts to go wild and doesn’t work. So every defeat device is almost impossible to get under the EPA’s rules. In Europe, they have a defeat device definition, just like the US, but interestingly, the manufacturers do not have to go and explain themselves. So VW didn’t use a defeat device. They did what they thought they had to do to protect the engine.

In the US, when GM gives us a piece of paper and says they have certified this car according to EPA standards, the car has to be the model that is going to go on the road. It can’t be some “golden” test vehicle with specially-adjusted doors or tyres. It has to be the actual model that will drive on the road.

A big difference is that we pick out 15% of models and test them ourselves. And then we also look at cars in use, because a car has to last 120,000 miles with the same standards and a truck has to last 400,000 miles.

For trucks, the big issue is diesel, it is not gasoline. So we developed a system to test their emissions in the lab, which we then take out and use to test in-use trucks, which we rent for that purpose. We test a lot of vehicles, with a significant budget, and if they get caught they have to pay a large fine.

Let’s assume the EU will fix the test procedure and say that if manufacturers want to install defeat devices they have to come and disclose them. They can say the tested vehicles must be the real model, not some specially-prepared vehicle. But if a manufacturer does the tests in their own laboratory and invites the regulators to observe them, how do they really know what they are doing?

And then what happens to cars in use? What happens if they get caught? Who is going to fine them? I understand that Fiat was certified in Italy and then sold across the EU, but when the Germans found some problems with certain cars there was nothing they could do because it had a valid certificate from an EU member state.

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So if there is a certificate saying a car conforms to regulations in, say, Bulgaria, that car can be sold anywhere in the EU?

Yes. Because this is the single market. I understand that member states don’t want Brussels to gain more power and have its own agency like the EPA, but they need to have an independent body that does not rely on private resources, that will have the teeth to enforce decisions. That is lacking. It needs to be supported by all countries and it needs the authority to go and randomly select vehicles and figure out what is going on and what should happen if any wrongdoing is found.

But in Europe, you never apply penalties. In my almost 30 years in the US, I think we handed out penalties to pretty much every car company. Some of it was small stuff and many of the companies recalled products themselves. But we were out there doing something, and if it wasn’t for the US, the VW issue in Europe would not have been a big deal.

What kind of resources does the EPA have to carry out its work?

$20-25 million per year and around 70 engineers.

That split between 28 countries in the EU doesn’t seem like a huge amount of money.

No, but some states like California also have their own programmes, and we collaborate.

Commission car emissions testing won't have muscle like US watchdog

Commission officials told MEPs in the Environment Committee (ENVI) yesterday (23 February) that the executive doesn’t have the resources to police the car industry like the US authorities that caught Volkswagen’s emissions cheating last year.

There are some pan-EU supervisors, like the European Securities and Markets Authority, which has direct responsibility for credit rating agencies. It was created after the financial crisis. Do you get any sense from the Commission that the Volkswagen crisis has spawned some kind of drive to do something similar?

I think we will see improvements, but I personally don’t see them going down the path that we have in the US. But they have to figure out a way of having some kind of visible monitoring agency. The company themselves cannot do the monitoring, nor can the individual countries, who just want to export their national champion cars.

Fiat is associated with Italy, VW with Germany. Do you think sometimes governments turn a blind eye?

I left Europe when I was 18 so I cannot answer with certainty. But what I can tell you is that you can have the most perfect certification and compliance systems in place, but if you don’t enforce them, they are meaningless, they are toothless. And that is the real issue. They are fixing the paperwork, but are they going to fix the enforcement and compliance side? And if so, how are they going to do it, and who will be responsible? And how soon will it happen? When it comes to CO2, this is an even bigger issue. We talk a lot about developing countries and verification, but how do we verify Europe’s CO2 emissions?

Could the VW scandal, coupled with the Paris Agreement which means emissions targets, create the political drive to create this agency?

Yes, I am very hopeful. What happened with VW was terrible, and it is dramatic for the company.  A silver lining might be it encourages them to invest more in electric vehicles and not just diesel. But I think this is an opportunity to make fundamental changes, so I am very hopeful.

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French prosecutors have opened an inquiry into Volkswagn for “aggravated fraud”. Our partner Journal de l'Environnement reports.

US regulators found that Volkswagen designed software for close to half a million diesel cars that gave false emissions data during the laboratory tests. Experts consider that tests on the road are more difficult to be cheated.

In Europe, while the European Commission and national authorities are preparing more strict emissions limits, a number of inquiries have already been opened in France.

But the executive seems reluctant to open any kind of inquiry. Elzbieta Bienkowska, the Internal Market Commissioner, has upset MEPs by saying that the executive intends not to act until the member states have conducted their own national investigations.

The presidents of the European Parliament´s Environment, Transport, Internal Market and Industry committees have decided to investigate how Volkswagen cars could have cheated the testing system without the fraud being picked up at any stage by the European Commission.


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