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House GOP members say a greater portion of the grants for less polluting buses should go to propane and natural gas buses.
Republicans say they envisioned the $5 billion in the infrastructure act for climate-friendlier school buses would replace older polluting diesel buses with a mix of ones that run on electricity, compressed natural gas or propane.
But nearly all of the first batch of funding the Environmental Protection Agency has given out to school districts around the country has gone to help schools buy electric buses, according to the agency’s data. Of the first $965 million of the Clean School Bus program funds the EPA has given out, 95% of the money was spent on 2,408 electric buses. Only 109 of the grants supplemented propane buses and 16 grants helped buy compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.
Spokespeople for schools in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Hawaii, all of which received funding to help them buy electric school buses, did not answer inquiries asking why they prefer electric buses. According to the EPA, more than 90% of the 2,000 applications the agency received for the money last year were to buy electric buses, compared to only 9% for propane buses and 1% for compressed natural gas.
Experts and Democrats say districts are asking for electric buses in greater numbers because they cost less to operate than other kinds of buses and have a greater impact on the environment. And as the cost of batteries goes down, that will add to the savings that electric buses bring, said Chris Hendrickson, faculty director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic 21 transportation research institute.
Additionally, Hendrickson said, while buses that run on compressed natural gas or propane pollute less than those on diesel, they still use internal combustion engines that send greenhouse emissions into the air.
However, Republicans like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, are accusing the EPA of pushing electric buses by giving out much higher grants to buy those buses than for those that run on propane and natural gas.
And because electric buses cost more, Rodgers said, it is a waste of money and the EPA funding will end up helping to buy fewer buses.
“They are not implementing it the way that Congress had laid out that program and they're paying like three times the prices for electric buses that they could be using on other alternatives,” Rodgers told Route Fifty, adding that she plans to grill EPA officials about the issue in her committee.
A trade group, the Propane Education & Research Council, is also criticizing the outsized purchase of electric buses. Because buses that run on propane are cheaper, the association said, EPA grants could be used to buy more of those kinds of buses and get more older, polluting buses off of the road. Rather than funding 2,350 electric school buses, the nearly $1 billion being spent this year could have paid for 29,000 propane buses, according to the council.
“If the program’s goal is to add a few electric school buses to a U.S. fleet that includes nearly half a million dirty diesel buses, it’s a start,” the group said in a statement last November. “But if the program’s goal is to decarbonize the U.S. school bus fleet by replacing as many diesel school buses as possible with low-emission buses, we have much better options.”
Rodgers wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan last week complaining that the agency was pushing electric buses by offering schools up to $375,000 for electric buses, compared to $25,000 for other buses. That, “inherently disincentivizes the purchase of clean school buses,” Rodgers wrote in the letter co-signed by Rep. Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican, who chairs the committee’s Environment, Manufacturing, & Critical Materials subcommittee.
It appears that with such a large portion of the grants earmarked to buy electric buses, some schools that wanted to buy ones running on propane have been left out. Mobile County public schools in Alabama, for example, applied to buy 25 propane school buses, but the request was put on an EPA waiting list for the next batch of funding. A spokeswoman for the schools did not respond to an email asking why they preferred propane buses.
A Senate Democratic aide defended the way the EPA is running the program and disputed Republican claims that Congress wanted half of the funding to go for buses that run on compressed natural gas and propane.
The bill dedicated half the money for electric school buses. The other half of the funding can be used for other kinds of buses, including those running on propane, or for more electric buses, the aide said. “It’s clear that schools in all 50 states are eager to transition to American-made electric school buses, which are better for our health and for the planet,” he said.
Sue Gander, director of the World Resources Institute's Electric School Bus Initiative, said in an interview that school districts buying electric buses need higher subsidies because they are more expensive.
The money is having an impact. The World Resources Institute estimated that last year the 480,000 school buses on the roads made up 80% of all buses nationwide, but that less than 1% ran on electricity. The funding has helped to almost double the number of electric buses, according to an analysis by the institute. While schools had 1,398 electric school buses in December 2022, they now own or are in the process of acquiring 5,612 of them.
“School districts are increasingly interested in moving towards electric vehicles. So this was a really, you know, fantastic opportunity for them to acquire the funding that is needed to be able to help make this transition at this stage,” Gander said. “Once the school districts are able to pay for the buses, then they can start recouping the operations and maintenance savings.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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