We all know that diesel exhaust is nasty…how often have you held your breath behind a big
diesel truck or school bus you’ve been following until the worst of the smoke has disappeared?
Diesel fuel is widely used. It powers ships, trains, trucks and buses, most agricultural equipment
and backup generators. Diesel engines are 30% more efficient and cheaper to run than gasoline
engines. Unfortunately, diesel exhausts pose a risk to human health.
Exhaust contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants including benzene, arsenic and nitrogen
oxides (NOx), a component of urban smog. The gases and fine particles penetrate deep into
lungs and contribute to a range of health problems. We all know about coughs, headaches and
nausea, but some components are carcinogenic.
Volkswagen installed emissions software that allowed them to sense the parameters of an EPA
emissions testing cycle, and thus cheat the test. That cheat worked on more than a half-million
diesel cars in the United States. Another 10.5 million more such cars were sold worldwide. The
Environmental Protection Agency was tipped off by researchers in 2014, and in 2016 a US
District Court approved a $14.7 billion settlement against the company.
Maine was awarded $21 million of that total, which must be used to offset existing NOx
emissions. Some will be spent on decreasing air pollution from diesel vehicles, and some to
install electric vehicle charging stations on the Interstate for those who want to eliminate their
motor vehicle exhaust.
Volkswagen wasn’t the only guilty company. A bit later Chrysler was discovered failing to
disclose energy management software to the Environmental Protection Agency, also in violation
of the Clean Air Act.
Volkswagen is now in additional trouble over their funding of a live experiment. Eleven
monkeys and 25 human subjects were exposed to diesel fumes, so that researchers could
determine something about the immediate health effects of diesel exhausts! The monkeys did not
die, but that only made them available for subsequent related experiments on the effects of
What don’t we get about this picture? We all know that diesel engines, internal combustion
motors burning gasoline and power plants burning coal produce fumes that are toxic and can
develop into sickening urban smog. None of that is new.
Exhaust emissions from burning carbon fuels are the invisible gaseous equivalents of garbage we
place roadside and pay for others to dispose of. Milton Friedman, author of Capitalism and
Freedom, the best-selling book on economics, is pretty clear that the answer to reducing pollution is not regulations, but instead “a tax on the amount of pollutants emitted by a car.” That
would “make it in the self-interest of car manufacturers and consumers to keep down pollution.”
So it is surely reasonable to tax carbon fuels. It would incentivize businesses to innovate in the
production, storage and use of clean energy so as to decrease the pollution they cause in a
competitive market where clean is a better sell.
What to do with the money collected? It should all be returned to citizens on an equitable basis.
We could then choose appropriate adjustments for our transportation, heating/cooling and other
purchases. This free market plan is called Revenue Neutral Carbon Fee and Dividend. The term
“Carbon Fee” is preferable to “ Carbon Tax” because, with the Dividend, government won’t
increase in size, nor will it be choosing winners and losers in the economy.
Furthermore, subsidies would soon be a thing of the past as the Fee is increased over time.
Carbon fuels currently enjoy many hidden subsidies built into the federal tax system. There is no
“free market” with such subsidies, especially when combined with the freedom to pollute. Soon
there would be no need for subsidies for wind and solar either.
The Dividend would amount to a thousand dollars or more per year per family of four. That’s
about equivalent to the recently enacted tax cuts for most of us in Maine. As an added bonus for
cutting emissions, the air would be cleaner for all. No longer would we be holding our breath
behind a dirty diesel.
Peter Garrett is a member of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Board of Directors as well as the
Transportation and Public Policy Teams. He is the Citizens’ Climate Lobby State Coordinator.
Peter lives in Winslow.
Last modified: February 14, 2018