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Electric cars require no gas and release no tailpipe emissions. That’s why we're working to get more of them on the road.

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Considering making the switch? Here's everything you need to know about driving electric cars and hybrids.

How smog, soot, greenhouse gases, and other top air pollutants are affecting the planet—and your health

Experts & Resources

Harvey Exposed Oil Issues We Must Address
Jacob Eisenberg

The catastrophe of Hurricane Harvey is now shedding light on how climate change – manifesting in the form of stronger and more intense weather events – can bring enormous destruction to communities. Because the region hit by Harvey also serves as a home base to much of the country’s oil industry and infrastructure, there is another story to be told about the how the storm is unleashing toxic pollution to land, water, and air. It is too early to tell the full extent of the environmental impact of the hurricane as many of the impacts to the region are still unfolding.

The storm caused the oil industry losses. But we’re learning more and more about damage to industry refineries, petrochemical plants, and transportation infrastructure which also endangers the health of the already-beleaguered population in proximity. We’ve learned of dozens of toxic air emissions events, oil spills, and other instances where oil industry assets released pollution. In the short-term, Harvey should serve as a wake-up call for industry’s need to prepare for more climate-related severe weather. But the storm showed how essential it is for us to move away from a system so reliant on petroleum, both because of local toxic impacts and its contribution to climate change.

Fossil fuel infrastructure in Hurricane Harvey's path as a Category 4 storm

Map by Kira Minehart

On the ground, the concentration of oil processing plants and infrastructure in southeastern Texas has helped add toxic chemical releases to the list of issues residents and evacuees are already facing. Within 100 miles of Harvey’s path as a Category 4 Hurricane, there were 33 oil refineries with the capacity to process a total of 1,926 million barrels of oil per day, 2,751 miles of crude oil pipeline, and 1,443 offshore oil and gas platforms. Too much of it failed to fully withstand the extreme conditions faced during Harvey. And when oil infrastructure fails, human health and the environment are put at risk.

Government officials and the news media made dozens early reports of instances where the hurricane has allowed toxic pollution to be released into the air and flood waters. Houston residents had complained of an “unbearable” chemical smell and almost three dozen air emission event reports by 18 facilities precipitated by Harvey have been submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). An air emission event is an instance in which refineries, chemical manufacturing plants, or other facilities have released more air pollution than they’re permitted.

Emissions events as of September 1st. Data: TCEQ

Map by Kira Minehart

In some cases, companies opted to “flare” gases. Flaring is intended to be used by refineries as an escape valve when internal systems fail. In a well-designed and operated refinery, the process gases are recycled back into the refinery to power it. However, when a refinery has to abruptly and unexpectedly shut down, or sometimes as the result of a malfunction, there are excess process gases that have to be disposed of quickly. In those cases, the gases are flared, which sends hazardous pollutants into the atmosphere.

Other facilities released pollution after taking damage from the storm. A set of ExxonMobil refineries leaked hazardous gases; one after the floating roof of a storage tank partially sank under Harvey’s heavy rains, while the other saw damage to a component that captures sulfur dioxide emissions. The latter of those refineries has also released oil onto a nearby road. A set of tanks damaged by the storm spilled 30,000 gallons of crude oil—a harmful release that we can only hope will be unique. And Skytruth, through analysis of recent satellite imagery, was able to identify onshore a handful of fracking sites where stored chemicals likely escaped into floodwaters, including one just 400 yards from a home. Fracking wastewater poses a variety of health risks to humans, including the ability to cause reproductive and developmental health problems.

Much of the pollution coming from oil industry facilities and infrastructure is toxic. Benzene, a carcinogen, was among the most common released into the air during Harvey, per TCEQ reports. But there are others that are known to be severely irritating to human respiratory and nervous systems released across the city. Similarly, the flood water has become, the New York Times described, “a sea of health and environmental hazards,” with a huge range of pollutants from oil infrastructure, superfund sites, and sewage.

It’s worth noting, however, that Hurricane Harvey’s impacts are not limited to the area touched by the storm. As described above, Southeastern Texas is the center of the oil industry’s refining and transportation infrastructure. The concentration of oil industry facilities is so high, in fact, that the Harvey-induced closure of oil refineries has reduced the United States’ total oil refining capacity by 24 percent at the worst point. Needless to say, the closures have started sending gasoline prices upward across the country. The shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, which carries diesel and jet fuel from Houston to New York—40 percent of the South’s gasoline—doesn’t help matters. Where consumers and businesses need stability, the oil industry can only offer price volatility.

Hurricane Harvey will likely be counted among the worst natural disasters of our time. If policy makers truly want to address the underlying problem of climate change which creates these more intense storms—reducing oil production would be a great place to start.

We should continue pursuing policies to push higher automotive fuel efficiency, which reduces transportation sector emissions and buffers consumers against gas pump price volatility. Supporting a transition to electric vehicles through tax incentives and investment in EV infrastructure would go further, especially as our electric sector undertakes a parallel clean-energy revolution. And smart infrastructure planning can motivate citizens, particularly in urban areas, to take advantage of efficient public transportation options, walk, and/or bike more often. By reducing our dependence on oil, we can reduce the congestion of oil infrastructure in areas like southeastern Texas, where it will continue to threaten the health of Americans. Unfortunately, President Trump’s administration is working to curtail these very solutions.

There’s a process lesson here, too. President Trump’s administration has made regulatory rollbacks and the fast-tracking of energy and infrastructure projects a priority. But the President should think twice before attacking safeguards, like the Chemical Disaster Rule his EPA is delaying, put in place to protect Americans. And as he pursues a transportation bill, one of his legislative priorities, he should consider how it could be used to, among other things, shore up vulnerable infrastructure that places our communities and environment at risk.

Hurricane Harvey was worse than a worst-case scenario. But, as Times columnist David Leonhardt put it, “the severity of Harvey…is almost certainly related to climate change,” which means the United States could see more storms like it. Hopefully we can use this experience to better prepare our systems for the next one.

We CAN Solve America’s Traffic Nightmare
Amanda Eaken

As L.A. residents lose an average of 104 hours to traffic every year, the region is exploring a supply-and-demand payment system for using congested roads.

Beatrix Boros/Stocksy

It’s simple economics. If you’ve stood in an endlessly long line for a free doughnut or burrito during a fast-food promotion, you get it. If you’ve avoided that kind of scene, you get it, too. What on a normal day would be a manageable wait time turns into a queue down the block.

What’s happening is that people flock to what is underpriced in the market. Offer something for free and you get a line. Sell it for a fair price and the crowd thins out as people start judging whether what they’re paying is worth the charge―in both time and money.

It’s the same thing with transportation.

Driving on most roads is “free,” so we prioritize driving in the belief that we’re spending zero dollars to get somewhere. In reality, especially as cities both large and small see thousands of new residents pour in every year―each with the expectation that he or she will drive a single-occupancy vehicle to work daily―the cost is high and getting higher. Cities and regions suffer crippling traffic congestion that is hurting economies and putting intense pressure on our environment and quality of life.

Transportation is now the number one source of carbon pollution in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. New research predicts that air pollution worsened by climate change will cost tens of thousands of lives worldwide by 2030 if positive changes don’t occur. Previous research has already shown that more than five million people worldwide die prematurely every year due to air pollution. Study after study has indicated that more roads bring more traffic and that those highways destroy neighborhoods, pollute the air, and turn our landscape into a vast concrete monument to cars.

Paying to Use Congested Roads: A Solution that Works

To help alleviate the situation, urbanists, planners, environmentalists, city leaders, and many others propose all kinds of transit options and endless education campaigns, including online tools and apps, bike-sharing programs and incentives, pocket parks, and pedestrian malls. And yet, traffic increases. We have a good idea of what people need to do, but we’ve also learned that asking people to give up what they think is convenient and free won’t work.

What we need is an organizing system of supply and demand.

Enter Go Zones, or what urban planners have long known as congestion pricing, the commonsense idea that we get what we pay for when we use a utility like roads and highways. Basically, drivers pay an automated fee to enter highly congested streets at peak hours; in return, they get the promise of smooth-flowing traffic and reliable travel times. Prices are set at the lowest possible level to free up just enough road space to eliminate bottlenecks.

London, Singapore, Milan, and Stockholm have all implemented such programs, and now, Los Angeles is hoping to become the first U.S. city to successfully adopt this system. People who live and work in Los Angeles lose an average of 104 hours to traffic per year, more than residents of any other American metropolis. If you’ve visited L.A. even once, you likely have a traffic horror story to tell.

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) has kicked off the 100 Hours campaign with a host of events and billboards highlighting the fact that L.A. drivers sacrifice to traffic the equivalent of two and a half weeks of vacation, 100 picnics in the park, or 48 game nights with family each year.

The campaign makes the case for adopting a package of proven mobility solutions from around the world, with the next step convening stakeholders to gain input and recommendations on tailoring a Southern California Go Zone to Los Angeles’s unique circumstances, constraints, and aspirations. As L.A. starts readying for the 2028 Olympics, a Go Zone could be one of many innovations to be explored in an effort to ensure the region’s notorious traffic doesn’t prevent Angelenos from enjoying the Games.

Implementing Go Zones can be pretty painless. The system―like almost any involving supply and demand―organizes itself. As international transportation specialist Jonas Eliasson said in his popular TED Talk on the topic, when Stockholm introduced pricing in January 2006, traffic to the city center dropped by 20 percent literally overnight. That’s like weekday driving on Olympic Boulevard eastbound at noon instead of 5 p.m.

A follow-up study in Stockholm to see what made people change their behavior so drastically and so quickly revealed that the majority of those questioned had no idea. In fact, most surveyed had no sense that their behavior had changed at all. The change had seemed a natural response, and most drivers were confident they had favored congestion pricing all along, though a study before pricing was introduced showed 70 percent of the population was opposed.

London implemented the idea in 2003, not only allowing drivers to get to their jobs faster but also creating funds to pay for more-frequent buses, safer bike lanes, better sidewalks, and more public space in general. The 20 percent drop in traffic there meant about 90,000 fewer vehicles in the congestion pricing zone each day and raised some $200 million by 2008–09 to put back into the city’s transportation system. Some 70 percent of people affected by the charge switched to other modes of travel at various times.

In addition, both cities have experienced a 10 percent to 16 percent reduction in harmful emissions, with Stockholm reporting a 45 percent drop in child asthma.

People in these cities can still drive, mind you, but they must put a value on their time behind the wheel and pay more when necessity demands it. Think about it this way: If you need to get to work by a specific time, or if the cost of running late is high―such as a missed flight―you should be able to pay to get somewhere more quickly, right? And the result could even be money saved, such as when a parent is racing to day care before the $1-per-minute late charge kicks in, or when a plumber can head to one last job at 5 p.m. to earn $100 more.

Don’t you use your money to make things more cost-effective and convenient in other ways?

The solution makes sense economically and in terms of social, environmental, political, and security concerns. And as more cities globally become more competitive economically, the demand for driving will only increase. Finding solutions now is a home run for everyone.

What About Low-Income Commuters?

The status quo of prioritizing space for cars instead of space for people reinforces the inequality already in place in American cities. Roads are often constructed in ways that divide neighborhoods, and the pollution from those roads most affects people of lower incomes. Poor air quality and climate change, in fact, most seriously impact the poorest and most vulnerable.

Today our transportation system privileges those who can best afford the high costs of car ownership, including insurance, gas, and upkeep. Those too poor, young, or old to own and drive a car rely disproportionately on public transportation that is bogged down in traffic. Not only would a Go Zone speed up L.A.’s busy buses, but revenue from tolls could fund investment in new bus lines and better services and subsidize toll discounts for lower-income drivers unable to pay the full amount.

Critics may respond that taking away a “free” option is unfair. But as UCLA urban planning professor Mike Manville argues, the existing system―in which cars are a necessity, transit is spotty, and affordable housing can be found only on the outskirts of cities―also is far from fair.

The once-popular idea that the automobile brought us independence, freedom, and a ticket to the open road of opportunity seems like gallows humor today as we tangle with traffic at every turn in America’s urban centers. It’s clear that what we once thought was “free” and a ticket to “freedom” is trapping us in our cars and neighborhoods, to the detriment of our own health and quality of life. But if L.A. can get on board with the Go Zone, perhaps the rest of America will follow, giving us healthier air, more time, and a better future.

Tell Trump and EPA administrator Pruitt to save clean car standards

Guiding Principles for Utility Programs to Accelerate Transportation Electrification
Issue Brief

The early electric vehicle (EV) market has been strong, and it is poised to expand rapidly, with second-generation vehicles, like the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3, in production, offering longer ranges at more affordable price points. However, unless a growing charging infrastructure gap is closed, the market could stall. Likewise, many consumers are simply unaware of the many EV models that could meet their needs. Electric utilities are uniquely situated to help overcome these barriers and meaningfully accelerate the adoption of light-, medium-, and heavy-duty EVs.  

With the right policies and programs, utilities can provide widespread benefits to all customers by improving the operation of the electric grid, reducing exposure to dangerous air pollution, and fighting climate change by electrifying America’s cars, trucks, buses, forklifts, cranes, trains, etc. To fully realize environmental, grid, and customer benefits, we present a non-exhaustive set of guiding principles to help frame utility proposals to accelerate the electrification of the transportation sector, the largest source of emissions in the country.

Utility Regulators Help Michigan’s Auto Industry Electrify
Max Baumhefner

For over 100 years, Michigan has remained the country’s undisputed automotive capitol. As the home of the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, and Fiat-Chrysler) and a nation-leading 70,000 jobs in clean transportation technology, it’s no wonder that the industry is a point of pride for many Michiganders. Now, with mass-market electric vehicles (EVs) like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and the Tesla Model 3 under production, the auto industry is faced with a challenge and an opportunity to collaborate with another big player—the electric industry.

Recognizing the critical role the electric utilities it regulates will play in fueling the EV market, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) and the Michigan Agency for Energy (MAE) are co-sponsoring a technical conference on August 9th with automakers, utilities, charging station companies, and other stake holders to discuss how Michigan’s utility industry can help the state carry its automotive history into the future of electrified transport.

I’ll be speaking on a panel at the conference focused on “The Role of Regulation and Government in Creating Effective Policy.” As noted in this NRDC issue brief, which lays out guiding principles to inform utility programs, we need effective policies to ensure we realize the benefits of an increased role for the electric industry:

The electrification of the transportation sector is not only a key pathway by which to meet air quality and climate goals, but also a singular opportunity for the electric industry. The United States spends more than $436 billion annually on gasoline and diesel. Diverting a portion of that expenditure to the electric sector can spread the costs of the transmission and distribution grid over more sales, putting downward pressure on the price of electricity while also providing consumers relief from volatile gasoline and diesel prices.

If done correctly, utility programs could spur EV growth in Michigan to the benefit of all residents—regardless of whether they own an EV. NRDC and our partners at Sierra Club and Ecology Center commissioned a report by MJ Bradley & Associates to analyze how benefits to Michiganders scale up as EV adoption increases. By extrapolating upon a Bloomberg New Energy Finance EV growth forecast, MJ Bradley & Associates estimates that by 2050:

  • The number of EVs in Michigan will grow from roughly 1 million in 2030 to 5.4 million in 2050—up from roughly 13,000 today;
  • Michigan utility customers can expect to save $2.6 billion cumulatively on their electric bills from managed EV charging;
  • Michigan drivers can expect to save $23.1 billion cumulatively through reduced fueling and maintenance costs; and
  • Michigan residents will realize $5.7 cumulatively in benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The study also examines how benefits to utility customers change as new electric demand from EVs shifts. The results suggest that when EV drivers have the incentive to charge late in the evening when the grid is less stressed—as opposed to plugging in right after work when everyone’s gadgets are turned on—the monetary benefits to all utility customers nearly double.

There’s no doubt that Michigan remains the center of the automotive world today. But when about 400,000 people put down $1,000 deposits for Tesla’s Model 3 last April, it did not go unnoticed in the Motor City. The Michigan Public Service Commission technical conference presents an opportunity to affirm the state’s leadership role in automotive innovation, in partnership with the electric industry. By providing a clear regulatory pathway for utility participation in the EV space, the Commission can spur investments needed to support widespread transportation electrification that benefits all Michiganders.

Michigan Electric Vehicle Cost-Benefit Analysis

For over a century, Michigan's auto industry has laid a foundation for economic growth and job creation in the region. As mass-market electric vehicles like the Chevy Bolt are brought to the fore, Michigan has an opportunity to continue this leadership while benefitting Michiganders - regardless of whether they drive electric.

A new MJ Bradley & Associates report, commissioned by NRDC, Sierra Club, and The Ecology Center, finds that scaling up electric vehicle (EV) adoption at a level consistent with expert projections will provide the state $2.6 billion in cumulative utility bill savings through the improved utilization of the electric grid by 2050. The analysis also reveals that Michigan drivers can expect to save a striking $23.1 billion in vehicle fuel and maintenance costs while also yielding societal benefits of $5.7 billion in the form of reduced pollution - both by 2050. Ensuring that the majority of EV charging occurs during off-peak hours when the grid is not stressed will drive even greater benefits for utility customers. With the right policies in place, Michigan can look forward to a bright and electrified future as the country's undisputed automotive leader.


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