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A Koch-Fueled Attack on Electric Buses Picks Up Speed

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SounderBruce / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Dana Drugmand

Electric buses are replacing existing diesel-fueled fleets at an accelerating rate, and the transition to battery-powered buses is outpacing even the most optimistic projections. In this light, it should come as little surprise that commentators and organizations with ties to the Koch network and the oil industry are attacking a transportation option that yields fewer fossil fuel profits and cleaner, healthier air for people and planet.


A string of recent commentaries published in the conservative Washington Examiner have relied on a handful of critical reports about the rollout of electric buses in individual municipalities, which the commentators use to portray electric buses, as a class, as uneconomical and unreliable.

Despite these efforts by Koch affiliates and oil industry consultants, the electrification of bus transit is firmly underway. These high tech buses are already being widely deployed throughout China, which, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), is adding about 9,500 electric buses every five weeks. As China leads the way and North American and European municipalities follow suit, analysts expect this momentum to accelerate and predict 80 percent of the global municipal bus fleet to be electric by 2040.

That is bad news for the oil industry. Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts that switching from internal combustion engine transport to electric vehicles will displace 7.3 million barrels of oil a day.

According to Bloomberg, this year electric buses already will lower diesel consumption by 233,000 barrels a day.

Who's Behind a Series of Drive-by Attacks on Electric Buses in the Washington Examiner?

As more cities and states move toward this electrified mass transit option, it cuts into the demand for conventional diesel fuel—and into fossil fuel industry profits. A Washington Examiner article from Dec. 12, 2017 explores the rise of electric vehicles with a particularly telling headline: "Rise of electric vehicles threatens oil industry."

More recently, the Washington Examiner has run a series of opinion pieces criticizing electric buses. The main arguments are that they are expensive and unreliable, prone to breaking down. These pieces share arguments, and their authors share affiliations, with the Koch brothers and other oil industry funders.

For example, one commentary by Philip Wegmann looks at a new electric bus fleet on Martha's Vineyard, pointing to the cost of the vehicles and the fact that they experienced technical problems early on. The piece neglects to mention any benefits of these buses to the environment or public health, nor does it reference the fact that the Vineyard Transit Authority's slow rollout of the buses was expected and that they plan on doubling the size of the electric fleet by next summer.

Wegmann has been closely tied to the Koch network since the beginning of his career. He started his writing career as a fellow of the Koch's America's Future Foundation writing program. Wegmann is currently a fellow at the Steamboat Institute, a right-wing think tank affiliated with the Koch-backed State Policy Network. This year, he was awarded the Steamboat Institute's Tony Blankley fellowship, which came with a $10,000 stipend and a host of other benefits.

Prior to joining the Examiner as a staff writer, Wegmann worked for conservative media outlet The Daily Signal, which is published by the Koch network-funded Heritage Foundation and which also features work by fellow America's Future Foundation alumnus Michael Bastasch.

Another Examiner piece by Wegmann slams electric buses in Los Angeles. "They don't run, they are expensive, and they're Chinese," Wegmann wrote. LA's neighbor Santa Monica is also converting its buses to electric, and Wegmann again attacks that move in another commentary. He again played the cost card, and claims, without statistical evidence, that "basically no one" rides the new buses.

Wegmann continues to rail against the electric bus in the Examiner, as recently as last week commenting on Atlanta, Georgia's purchase of a fleet from the Chinese company Build Your Dreams (BYD). "One expects cities like Albuquerque and Los Angeles to drop millions on the novelty environmental fleets, not a deep red state in the South that traditionally votes Republican and cares more for business than green pipe dreams," he writes.

Ross Marchand echoes this criticism in another Examiner opinion piece. Marchand is director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which is basically a front group funded in part through Koch-connected channels. Previously Marchand interned for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), both part of the Koch network.

Marchand's argument is primarily based on expense, but he even claims that electric buses could "prove dirtier than conventional fleet depending on which energy sources America relies on in the future." He backs that statement with a link to a piece by Jonathan Lesser, president of the consulting firm Continental Economics. Lesser has an antagonistic record towards clean energy policies, and he has "submitted expert testimony and reports on behalf of major utility and fossil fuel interests like Exelon, Occidental, Duke Energy, and FirstEnergy," according to the Energy and Policy Institute.

Lesser is also frequently contracted by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that has received millions of dollars in funding from foundations in the Koch donor network.

Electric Bus Myths, Debunked

The claims laid out by electric bus antagonists use limited views and dog whistles of "communism" and "environmental zealotry" to attack the electric vehicles, especially when compared to "cleaner natural gas-burning buses." The unreliability argument is backed, for instance, by an investigative story in the LA Times from May that looks at problems with range and quality encountered by the Chinese e-bus manufacturing company BYD.

The Times article raises legitimate concerns about the products delivered by BYD, and the company responded with a statement saying that glitches are to be expected with "any groundbreaking technology." However, the article referred only to BYD buses, and not the electric bus industry as a whole.

"That was an article about a company, but the headline was about a category," Ryan Popple, CEO of electric bus maker Proterra, told GTM. "I hope that people don't paint a broad brush over the whole category." While the BYD buses struggled on hills—a major focus of the LA Times article—competitor Proterra's electric buses have been tested, for instance, in the mountains around Park City, Utah, to the satisfaction of local municipal transit planners, who ordered six units to serve the local bus routes.

Had he wanted, Wegmann could have looked even closer to find a counterpoint to the problematic BYD buses in Los Angeles. Foothill Transit, which serves 22 cities from downtown LA to the east, first tested Proterra buses in 2010 and is still using them.

"The technology is very robust," Doran Barnes, Foothill's executive director, told the Seattle Times. "We've had very few problems." Foothill Transit now operates 17 Proterra electric buses, and recently ordered 13 more, including a new set of all-electric double decker buses. Foothill Transit has pledged to serve its hilly region with an exclusively electric fleet by 2030.

Foothill Transit

So despite the early performance and mechanical issues from at least one manufacturer, as these issues are resolved and technology continues to improve, municipal transit authorities across the U.S. continue to order more of the buses from BYDand other major electric bus manufacturers like Proterra and New Flyer.

As for the cost argument, it is true that electric buses cost more up front than their diesel-powered counterparts. However, those costs are falling, and when considering the entire life cycle of the vehicle—purchase price, fuels, operational and maintenance expenses—electric buses prove to be cheaper than their diesel counterparts.

Moreover, according to BNEF, the projected decline in battery costs likely make electric buses cost-competitive with diesel at the point of purchase by 2026. By then, the number of electric buses on the road is expected to more than triple and make up nearly half of the worldwide city bus fleets.

There are solid reasons behind this trend. Electric buses are better for public health (reducing local air pollution from burning diesel), better for the climate (increasing efficiency and reducing reliance on fossil fuels), and make economic sense in terms of their full cost of moving passengers, when factoring in maintenance and fuel cost-savings. These various benefits are explained in a May 2018 report from U.S. PIRG and Environment America.

In terms of public health, there is no question that electric is better. Diesel exhaust is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a likely carcinogen, and it is internationally recognized as a cancer-causing agent that is also responsible for respiratory and other illnesses. Chicago estimates that its electric buses will result in $55,000 in healthcare savings annually per bus, while a Columbia University analysis for New York City pegs it at $150,000 per bus.

Another obvious benefit of shifting from diesel to electric buses is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. In the U.S. alone, converting transit buses to electric could save over 2 million tons of emissions each year, a clear win for the climate.

Electric buses also have lower operating and maintenance costs. As with other electric vehicles, there is no fuel cost. Chicago Transit Authority estimates it saves $25,000 annually in net fuel costs for each bus.

Furthermore, the U.S. PIRG report states that:

"According to studies of electric buses currently in operation, electric buses save at least $0.19 per mile in lower maintenance costs. Over the lifetime of the bus, an electric transit bus can avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs over an equivalent diesel or natural gas bus, from lower fuel and maintenance costs."

While the e-bus costs more upfront, the fuel and maintenance cost-savings make up the difference, usually within 10 years.

Improved models and better battery technology are moving toward solving reliability issues, too. The newer electric bus models apparently can travel up to 200 miles or more on a single charge. Proterra makes e-buses designed to go 200 to 350 miles, for example. Electric buses also have fewer parts than diesel buses, which would theoretically require less maintenance.

Given these considerations, many cities are now announcing transitions to electric bus fleets. New York City announced in April its plans to electrify its fleet by 2040. Los Angeles is committed to an entirely zero-emissions fleet by 2030. Seattle is purchasing 120 e-buses by 2020 and has committed to electrifying its entire fleet by 2040.

Electric buses are moving toward the mainstream, despite attacks from oil industry apologists.

Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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