Five years after news of VW’s emissions-cheating scandal broke, Colorado is making progress toward cleaner, cheaper transportation.

On September 18th, 2015, the world learned VW had misled hundreds of thousands of people into buying dirty, diesel vehicles designed to avoid emissions standards. Five years later, we looked back at our campaign to hold VW accountable and highlighted how tens of millions of dollars from a legal settlement and a customer “buy back” program has helped Coloradans head toward a cleaner, electric-powered future.

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Danny Katz
Executive Director

Author: Danny Katz

Executive Director

(303) 573-7474 ext. 303

Started on staff: 2001
B.A., University of Virginia

Danny directs the operations of CoPIRG and is a leading voice in Denver and across the state to improve transit, stop identity theft, increase consumer protections, and get big money out of our elections. Danny has spearheaded efforts to electrify Colorado’s transportation systems, and co-authored a groundbreaking report on the state’s transit, walking and biking needs over the next 25 years. Danny also serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's Efficiency and Accountability Committee and Transit and Rail Advisory Committee, and is a founding member of the Financial Equity Coalition, a collection of public, private, and nonprofit organizations committed to bringing financial security to communities throughout Colorado. He resides in Denver with his family, where he enjoys biking and skiing, the neighborhood food scene and raising chickens.

Watch our panel on the 5-year anniversary of the VW emissions scandal.

Five years ago Volkswagen (VW) was caught. They built elaborate software — called a “defeat device” — to turn on some of their car’s emissions controls during tailpipe pollution tests and turn them off during regular driving. WIth emission controls off, the vehicle emitted as much as 40 times the legal limit of smog-forming pollutants. 

Make VW Pay

Furious. That was Marcus Moench’s reaction. He and his wife Elisabeth owned a 2010 Jetta Sportswagen TDI diesel car - one of VW’s emissions-cheating vehicles. 

What was so infuriating was they did their homework and shopped around for the cleanest vehicle they could find both for smog-forming pollution and carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas contributor. 

Based on the description and the specs of the Jetta, Marcus and Elisabeth decided to go with the so-called “clean” diesel VW vehicle. 

 

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Marcus and Elisabeth's emissions-cheating VW vehicle - staff photo

 

Within days of the EPA announcement that 482,000 VW diesel vehicles (soon to grow to 567,000) were designed to get away with breaking the law, including Marcus and Elisabeth’s, they decided to do something about it and connected with me, since we had launched a campaign to Make VW Pay. 

We agreed that VW needed to do two major things - fully refund customers for selling them a defective product and support programs that moved our transportation system to a cleaner, electric-powered one to make up for all the pollution these vehicles had secretly emitted. 

In order to shine a spotlight on our demands and push VW to do the right thing, our first strategy was to recruit the dealership where Marcus and Elisabeth bought their dirty vehicle.

At the time I said - “Volkswagen dealerships have a great opportunity to stand with their customers and call on Volkswagen to buy back these cars for their original price. The dealers didn’t build the defeat devices that misled nearly a half a million Americans. But they did sell the cars and they can fight for their customers and ensure VW does the right thing – give customers their money back.” 

We went to the local Boulder dealership where they purchased the vehicle and called on the ownership to join us at a news event demanding VW to do the right thing. Marcus and Elisabeth even went inside the dealership to try and return their car for a full refund right there and then.

 

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Speaking to reporters outside of Boulder VW dealership - staff photo

 

The dealership declined to join our call to make VW pay and after a few conversations with VW’s national leadership it became clear more needed to be done to convince them to fully compensate their customers and fix the environmental damage they had caused. 

Road Trip to VW Headquarters in Virginia

So in January, 2016, Marcus and Elisabeth left Boulder on a cross-country road trip to bring their vehicle, and the thousands of petitions we had gathered, to the VW headquarters in Herndon, Virginia. Along the way, the couple joined other State PIRG’s holding news conferences to ensure VW and our federal regulatory agencies saw that Americans demanded VW be held accountable. 

They made stops in Texas, Illinois, and Michigan, including a stop at the Detroit car show, then traveled to an event in New York City before arriving at VW headquarters in Virginia. Our national advocate, Mike Litt, joined them to deliver the petitions, our demands, and the emissions-cheating vehicle

By October, VW had reached a settlement that consisted of three major parts.

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CDPHE settlement overview - Christine Hoefler 9.18 CoPIRG webinar

VW Settlement Accelerates Transition to Cleaner Transportation in Colorado

Colorado received $68,7 million in the settlement to be used to reduce transportation-related emissions in the state. The initial plan divided the money into five buckets - School buses/Trucks; Transit buses; Electric-vehicle charging stations (ZEV); Heavy equipment via the DERA program; and Administrative costs. 

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CDPHE settlement overview - Christine Hoefler 9.18 CoPIRG webinar

 

In 2019, Governor Jared Polis enacted an executive order that updated our plan and required that moving forward 100% of the dollars would be invested in electric-powered vehicles, equipment, and infrastructure. 

Colorado’s investment plan is smart and will help accelerate our transition to cleaner, electric-powered vehicles, which have no tailpipes and produce a lot less pollution overall even with some fossil fuels powering our electric grid. 

The plan is focused on the places we need the dollars the most. The single biggest reason car shoppers give for not buying an electric vehicle is the fear that they’ll run out of juice before they get where they need to go. That’s why I’m glad to see millions of settlement dollars going to build out an electric-vehicle charging network across the state.

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EV charging locations - Christine Hoefler 9.18 CoPIRG webinar

 

In addition, we know the upfront costs of an electric-powered bus can be prohibitive for school districts and transit agencies to begin converting to cleaner vehicles even when the cost of fueling and maintaining the electric-powered buses are less than their dirtier fossil fuel counterparts. So investing millions of settlement dollars to help pay the difference in price is helping a number of schools and transit fleets begin the conversion now. This is particularly important for those kids and transit riders who no longer have to be exposed to the tailpipe pollution when they ride the bus. 

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VW settlement funds, transit investments - Christine Hoefler, 9.18 CoPIRG webinar

 

Of the $68.7 million dollars awarded to Colorado, we have about $37 million left. For transit agencies, the next round of applications for electric-powered buses closes on October 12th. For school buses and other heavy duty vehicles, the next round of applications opens on November 2nd. 

“Buy Back” Helps Coloradans Go Electric

 In addition to the statewide settlement funds, VW agreed to buy back their defective vehicles. For Marcus and Elisabeth, and the estimated 9,500 Coloradans who owned these deceptively dirty cars, this was welcome news. 

Marcus and Elisabeth used some of the $23,000 they received to purchase an electric vehicle and they are happy they have converted to an EV. As Marcus put it: “Our electric vehicle is our favorite car. It’s all we need for our day-to-day local errands, which is most of our driving. We also travel frequently from Boulder up the canyon into the mountains and we rarely have a need to use our other car. One of the consequences of the VW scandal is it convinced us to go electric.”

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5-year anniversary webinar with Marcus and Elisabeth, and Christine Hoefler from CDPHE - staff

Next Stop: 100% Clean, Cheap, Zero Emissions Transportation

With another $37 million to invest, Colorado has a chance to continue to accelerate our transition to a zero-emissions transportation system. 

But I know it’s going to take more than $37 million to get to a 100% clean transportation future. We’ve got a plan to push Colorado even faster:

  1. Leverage utility funding to build EV infrastructure. In May, Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, announced a $102 million proposal to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure and services in their territory including building an estimated 20,000 EV chargers. Just like the VW settlement plan, these dollars can help remove the barriers that slow down EV conversion for individuals, businesses, transit agencies, and local governments. CoPIRG’s Allison Conwell spells out the benefits of this proposal.
  2. Implement an Advanced Clean Truck rule. We need manufacturers to produce more clean, electric-powered vehicles. Colorado has already adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) rule, which requires manufacturers of cars and SUVs to ramp up EV offerings in Colorado. On July 14, Governor Jared Polis signaled that Colorado will consider a similar measure for heavier vehicles and trucks when he signed us on to a national MOU to accelerate bus and truck electrification.
  3. Secure more GoEV City and County 100% electric vehicle commitments. In collaboration with other clean car advocates, we launched the GoEV City and County program to recognize Colorado municipalities that made a commitment to get to 100% clean, electric-powered vehicles. These kinds of bold commitments can push the state to take faster action, send a clean market signal, and reinforce to the public that 100% electric vehicles are the future. 
  4. Transform our transportation system so people can drive less, live more. If we make it easier, more affordable and more pleasant for more people to take a train or bus, to share rides, or to bike or walk, then more of us will choose to travel without a car or even not own a car at all. Our goal is to double the number of people who travel on foot, bike or public transit by 2030, reducing pollution and increasing the quality of life for so many Coloradans across the state. 
Danny Katz
Executive Director

Author: Danny Katz

Executive Director

(303) 573-7474 ext. 303

Started on staff: 2001
B.A., University of Virginia

Danny directs the operations of CoPIRG and is a leading voice in Denver and across the state to improve transit, stop identity theft, increase consumer protections, and get big money out of our elections. Danny has spearheaded efforts to electrify Colorado’s transportation systems, and co-authored a groundbreaking report on the state’s transit, walking and biking needs over the next 25 years. Danny also serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's Efficiency and Accountability Committee and Transit and Rail Advisory Committee, and is a founding member of the Financial Equity Coalition, a collection of public, private, and nonprofit organizations committed to bringing financial security to communities throughout Colorado. He resides in Denver with his family, where he enjoys biking and skiing, the neighborhood food scene and raising chickens.