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Maine’s Share of VW Settlement — If Accepted — Could Go Toward Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

Markus Schreiber
Associated Press
Maine stands to get $21 million in Volkswagen's settlement with U.S. states.

Volkswagen and its sister companies are shelling out billions of dollars to customers and states that were affected by its attempts to cheat on emissions tests.

There are scores of settlements and suits in various stages of process. Maine is in line for a share of one settlement, worth a total of $2.7 billion, that aims to reduce diesel pollution.

The question now is whether Gov. Paul LePage will accept the money, and if he does, how it will be spent.

The idea behind the settlement is that the funds will help the states invest in pollution-reducing infrastructure, at least in part to make up for the nitrogen oxides that diesel VWs, Porsches and Audis spewed into the air at as much as 40 times the legal limit.

The funding available to each state is relative to the number of the offending vehicles registered there, and with more than 3,600 of them registered in Maine at one time or another, the state could get $21 million.

But there are strings attached. The money has to be invested in specific technologies that reduce transportation-related pollution, and because of those strings, there are some who worry that LePage — no fan of ceding budgetary control to outside authorities — might reject the windfall.

“I am afraid of that yeah. As opposed to some money that comes in from settlements, this money has to go right through the governor’s office,” says Democratic state Rep. Dean Rykerson of Kittery.

Rykerson has submitted a bill titled “To Ensure Use of Funds for Maine as Beneficiary of the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Agreement.” He acknowledges that the Legislature can’t compel the governor to sign on, but he hopes to at least call attention to the question.

The governor’s press office did not respond to questions about the VW settlement, but according to Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Department of Transportation, that agency does expect to administer the funds if the governor gives the thumbs up.

“We don’t have a whole lot of details at the DOT just yet. We’ve had a couple meetings about this. The other thing we can confirm is that the DOT will take the lead for this program,” he says.

Assuming that LePage does, in fact, draw down the funds, they can then finance various technologies that reduce transportation-related diesel pollution. That could include replacing diesel engines or heating systems in cars, trucks and buses with more efficient options powered by electricity, propane gas or compressed natural gas.

That range of allowed options is likely to create some friction. Democratic State Sen. Dave Miramant of Camden is trying to get the jump on that by submitting a bill to direct that all of the funds go to support electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed to provide a comprehensive network of electric charging stations.

“I’m afraid that the groups, including the executive office, that want to push for spending tax dollars on private companies to bring more natural gas, which doesn’t cut back on emissions, they’ll try to grab it for that,” he says.

“It’s easy for a given legislator to say, ‘Well I want it all to go to electric,’” says Tony Buxton, lobbyist for the Industrial Energy Consumers Group, a consortium of big Maine manufacturers — including paper mills and biomass plants — that rely heavily on diesel trucks to ship product and fuel around the region. “We’re not opposed to electric vehicles, we support electric vehicles. But electric vehicles are useful really only in the consumer sector and small commercial. We also need to deal with the use of diesel trucks, and the fact of the matter is that diesel trucks have tremendous mileage in Maine. That is, they are used a lot, and we need to address that as well.”

One influential environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation, is backing the all-electric option. A CLF lawyer points out that even LePage might be brought on board: Emily Green notes that 15 percent of the allotment could be dedicated specifically to charging stations, and LePage is already working with the premier of Quebec to expand the number of stations on a corridor that runs across the border as a way to promote tourism.

A trustee for the national fund that will provide the money, meanwhile, has yet to be appointed. Once that happens, LePage will have 60 days to decide whether to use the funds, and appoint a state agency to administer them.