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We Sued and Administration Backs Down on Transportation Rule
Amanda Eaken Deron Lovaas

In the face of lawsuits it couldn’t win, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has lifted its suspension of a greenhouse gas (GHG) measure for transportation, via this notice, which will be published in the Federal Register Thursday.

Without notice or comment, in clear violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, FHWA had illegally suspended the measure on May 19, 2017. FHWA’s website now makes clear that the GHG measure will go back into effect and the measure’s first compliance deadline of October 2018 remains in effect. The administration also signals its intent to initiate a new rulemaking in 2017, which they hope to finalize in the spring of 2018.

The GHG measure was one of several promulgated by FHWA through a rule implementing the 2012 federal transportation law Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). The measure, which NRDC wrote about here, here, and here, covers measurement of heat-trapping carbon pollution and target-setting for reducing it. The measure will have the added benefit of reducing other dangerous air pollutants generated by mobile sources (i.e. tailpipes).

After FHWA announced that it was indefinitely delaying implementation of the GHG measure in May, NRDC joined forces with the US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) on behalf of Clean Air Carolina to challenge the agency’s action in court. And late last week, a group of 8 states filed suit against this unlawful action by FHWA as well.

This action was blatantly against the law. Important rules such as this one take a year or so to develop, with adequate comment periods (this one’s spanned four months). A new administration can’t just willy-nilly decline to follow through. So we sued, as written about here and here.

Why We Sued

The United States spends about half-a-trillion dollars on transportation annually. Local jurisdictions, states and the federal government funnel money toward highway, road, rail and bike lane construction and maintenance. These investments are enormously consequential not just for states but for metropolitan regions made up of cities and counties, which is why the latter are coordinated by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). And both MPOs and state departments of transportation (DOTs) are required by federal law to develop long-range plans spanning at least 20 years.

The good news is these plans have improved over time. The bad news is that they have not been, as the Bipartisan Policy Center and other experts advocate, performance-driven. As data collection and analysis, and the hardware and software that enable them, have improved, there is no excuse for little or no performance management by MPOs and DOTs.

That’s why Congress and the Obama Administration took action in 2012, enacting Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21). This bill, mostly unremarkable, included a planning title that is anything but, for the first time requiring regions and states to track and improve their performance across a range of measures in exchange for billions in federal funding support. And the Obama Administration took full advantage of it, carefully crafting rules for safety, pavement and bridge conditions, system performance, freight movement, and finally congestion mitigation and air quality.

The implementing agency, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), has a very capable staff which along with other groups has published a variety of resources helpful for MPOs and DOTs interested in performance measurement and management, such as this one. FHWA was poised to work with agencies across the country to improve planning, and that in turn would help cities, suburbs and states hammer out smarter and more effective plans that achieve better outcomes for all—such as reducing GHG emissions and fighting climate change. That’s why we couldn’t let the FHWA get away with illegally halting implementation of the GHG measure.

Going Forward

Our advocacy for better performance management and government accountability paid off. The government has announced that the GHG measure will be implemented effective Thursday. With the lawyers off the case, FHWA planners and engineers can finally get back to work. And MPO and state long-term plans will take this crucial step forward toward being performance-driven in the context of GHG emissions over the next year.

Bad planning is not inevitable, and measuring and setting targets for reducing carbon pollution is the essence of good planning. That's why the GHG measure is a commonsense tool. Sooner or later it will apply to all MPO and state transportation plans. And sooner is smarter, and better, for public health and the environment.

We know we have our work cut out for us since the administration is only backing down for now. We look forward to working with FHWA, MPOs and states towards realizing the health, safety and climate potential the GHG measure provides in tackling carbon pollution from transportation, the leading source in the United States.

China’s Coming Ban on Petrol Vehicles Will Peak Its Oil Use
Alvin Lin

BYD, a Chinese car company and battery manufacturer, is the world’s largest producer of electric vehicles.

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BYD_01.JPG

This post was authored by Noah Lerner, HyoungMi Kim and Alvin Lin.

China is adding its name to a growing list of countries that want to do away with fossil-fuel powered vehicles. Vice-Minister Xin Guobin of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced on September 9 that MIIT is working on a timeline to ban the domestic production and sale of petrol cars. This move is part of China’s broader efforts to curb air pollution, including rising ozone levels, and position itself as the dominant leader in the global electric vehicle (EV) market.

By developing a plan to phase out oil-powered vehicles, China, the world’s largest vehicle market, is adding critical momentum to the emerging international movement to phase out the use of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Other countries that have announced plans to ban the sale of ICE vehicles include: the Netherlands (by 2025), India (by 2030), Scotland (by 2032), and the UK and France (by 2040). Germany is debating a ban, and Norway plans to reach 100% EVs by 2025 through an aggressive tax scheme.

China’s Coming New Energy Vehicle Regulations

In 2016, China sold 507,000 new energy vehicles (NEVs), which include battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and fuel-cell cars, accounting for over 40% of global EV sales. And it’s only getting started. China plans to have 5 million new energy vehicles on the road by 2020, with 2 million sold that year, and to ramp up sales to 7 million NEVs per year by 2025 – about one-quarter of its current annual total vehicle sales.

While China’s call to phase out the sale of conventional petrol vehicles is an important signal to industry and other global leaders, China’s final issuance of New Energy Vehicle regulations—expected soon—will have a much more immediate impact on shifting the car market to new energy vehicles.

In September 2016, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a proposed regulation to add a New Energy Vehicles (NEV) credit program to the existing Corporate Average Fuel Consumption credit program. The final regulation, expected to be issued later this year, would require car manufacturers to meet targets for new energy vehicles credits, similar to California’s zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) program. Under the current draft of the policy, automobile manufacturers would be required to achieve NEV credits equivalent to 12% of the total traditional petrol vehicles manufactured or imported by 2020. However, because manufacturers may receive 2, 3 or more NEV credits per vehicle depending on the technology type, in practice this means that manufacturers would need to reach a share of around 2.4% - 4.6% NEVs out of their traditional vehicle production and imports by 2020.

The existing CAFC credit system requires car manufacturers to meet fuel efficiency credit targets for their petrol vehicles, with the current target requiring manufacturers to raise their average fleet fuel efficiency to 5 liters/100 kilometers by 2020 or about 47 miles per gallon. Under the current draft of the regulation, manufacturers that fail to meet CAFC credit targets can purchase additional credits from higher performing companies under either the CAFC scheme or the NEV scheme. However, allowing for “super credits” for NEVs, where for example production of one EV would be worth 2-3 CAFC credits, would reduce the stringency of the CAFC program, allowing car makers to build less efficient conventional vehicles. (For a more detailed overview and recommendations for improving the second draft of the proposed rules issued in June, see the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation’s brief.)

While the announcement of these policies has led almost all foreign car manufacturers to ask the government for less aggressive targets, it has also motivated companies like Volkswagen, Nissan, Ford and Toyota to push forward their plans to manufacture EVs in China. Ultimately, the devil will be in the details as both domestic and foreign car manufacturers have lobbied to delay the timing of the requirements and to allow NEV “super-credits” to be traded to meet CAFC credit obligations.

China will also be implementing its toughest ever emissions standards – “National VI” – in China’s largest cities in 2018, two years earlier than initially planned. These standards, limiting air and climate pollutant emissions, will be on par or even higher than standards in the U.S. and E.U.

Banning Petrol Vehicles Will Help China Peak Its Oil Consumption Earlier and Become a Leader in Electric Vehicles and Batteries

China’s consumption of diesel, used mainly in trucking and shipping, may have already peaked, but its oil consumption is expected to rise so long as conventional petrol car use continues to expand. In 2016, only about 31% of Chinese households owned cars, compared to over 90% in the U.S., suggesting that Chinese vehicle sales will continue to lead the world. Recognizing this, the government is looking to expanding electric vehicle sales in order to control its oil consumption, given that it is currently 64% dependent on oil imports, the most of any major country.

Even China’s state-owned oil company CNPC’s most recent forecast sees oil consumption peaking by 2030 and gasoline consumption peaking by 2025. China’s electric vehicle policies and future ban on petrol car sales will help it to achieve peak oil even earlier. Moreover, as it has done with new vehicle fuel quality and emissions standards, China’s government will likely choose to implement the petrol vehicle ban earlier in congested and polluted mega-cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, in order to maximize the health and climate benefits of its transportation decarbonization efforts. By taking a pro-active approach to incentivizing the clean energy transition in its vehicles sector, China is cleaning up its air, fighting climate change, and ensuring its competitiveness in the future of transportation and battery technology.

States Sue Administration Over Clean Transportation Rule
Amanda Eaken

A coalition of eight states has filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration’s decision to suspend a federal clean transportation rule.

The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, parallels litigation filed by NRDC, Clean Air Carolina, and US PIRG in late July. The full list of plaintiffs includes California, the California Air Resources Board, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota by and through Minnesota DOT, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

The lawsuit contends that by delaying and suspending a Greenhouse Gas Performance Measure for the national highway system, the Trump Administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to provide notice and opportunity to comment on the suspension before it took effect. The states’ lawsuit makes substantially similar arguments to those in the NRDC litigation.

The Greenhouse Gas Measure was promulgated under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act and would require state departments of transportation to benchmark and measure on-road greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within their jurisdictions, and set locally appropriate targets for GHG emissions reductions on national highways. MAP-21 requires the Federal Highway Administration to set goals in several performance areas to ensure the most efficient use of federal funds. The goal of the measure is to incentivize use of transportation strategies—such as bus rapid transit and commuter rail—that would reduce GHG emissions.

The states in the case seek a declaration that the Trump Administration’s delay and suspension of the GHG Measure without notice and comment violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), and an injunction ordering defendants to end the suspension of the GHG Measure.

These states are filing this litigation because they are seeking to protect their interests in protecting their citizens’ health and welfare, and in safeguarding their citizens from the adverse effects of climate change.  

The government’s response to the states’ complaint will be due in late November.

These lawsuits challenge an unlawful move by the Trump White House. Transportation is the leading source of carbon pollution in the United States and limiting pollution from our transportation system is a cornerstone of making our air cleaner, improving health for all Americans, and fighting climate change.

The simple but profound premise behind our original advocacy to secure a national GHG performance measure is that transportation plans must be more accountable for performance outcomes, including carbon pollution. This premise was at the center of the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law (SB 375) California passed in 2008, which has led to substantial health, safety and climate benefits for communities across the state. We are pleased, once again, to see local governments standing up to defend our climate policies in the absence of federal leadership. 

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.

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