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Catching Up With: Margo T. Oge, Former EPA Emissions Chief

Author, formerly of the EPA

Margo T. Oge stepped down in 2012 as director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality — that’s the top job in auto emissions to you and me. Oge today holds memberships on the boards of the National Academy of Sciences, DeltaWing Technologies, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the International Council on Clean Transportation — the non-governmental organization she helped found and that funded the basic research into real-world diesel emissions that exposed Volkswagen’s fraud in 2015. Her book, “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars,” offers an insider’s take on how the EPA operates and why.

AM: What did you learn from 25 years at the EPA?

MTO: Industry never, never wants to be regulated. You have to start with that premise. I don’t know anybody in the industry who ever said, “Thank you very much.”

AM: Do you have a philosophy of regulation?

MTO: Because the Clean Air Act is a performance-based statute, it basically says [the EPA has] to come up with standards to make the air cleaner, giving a timeframe to the industry that will allow it to innovate. The statute doesn’t say, “Give them a standard they can meet today.” … Do [automakers] tell you the truth? They’ll tell you what they’re allowed to tell you. Do they make up stories? Yeah, they make up stories. But you have to show respect, you have to be smart, have smart people who ask smart questions, and exercise your best judgment to put these regulations in place.

AM: Do you think industry ever speaks truthfully to the EPA?

MTO: In 2012, I was visiting refiners to convince them to support reducing sulfur even further in gasoline so we can have cleaner, more efficient catalysts. The vice president or president of [the Koch Brothers] downstream refining operation says, “Margo, let me be honest with you, [we don’t support it] not because we cannot invest [in reducing sulfur] or that it’s going to cost us more. Improving the fuel economy standards for cars means demand for gasoline is going to go down.” He said, “So, you’re asking us to invest in a product that eventually will eliminate us from the marketplace.” He didn’t say we cannot desulfurize or it’s going to be too expensive. Instead, he just told me the truth. They just didn’t feel like it.

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AM: What main energy source do you see in our automotive future?

MTO: It’s wonderful we have options. And certain parts of the planet, maybe Japan, seem to be investing significantly so that they will put the infrastructure in place to have [hydrogen] fuel cells. But electric cars make more sense now. Costs are coming down, and you are seeing range improving — the 238-mile-range Chevy Bolt is on its way. … Looking at 2050, to get the 80-percent reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 levels … the whole car fleet has to be electric, everything. But that’s not the only reason. I think we’re going to [get there] because of innovation, new players, and social trends.

AM: Surely the oil industry won’t come around to this easily?

MTO: We have seen it play out for the last three decades. It started with the oil industry, chemical manufacturers, and car companies supporting the climate change deniers. We’ve seen it, and it’s still happening. … I think you are going to see a continuing effort by some big players to deny climate change. They’ll deny the evidence of science and incorporate analysis that suggests taking action is going to be very expensive and it will impact the economy and jobs.

AM: You don’t agree with that?

MTO: When the agency goes out with an environmental regulation, [you hear], “We’re going to outsource jobs, we’re going to devastate the economy and the community, gasoline prices will go up 10, 20, 30 cents a gallon.” Nonsense, it’s never been more than a few cents a gallon. … Every time we do this cost-benefit analysis, what is the cost to the industry and what are the benefits to society, at least in my 20 years’ experience managing, I think if I put all the programs together it was a factor of 1 to 15, 1 being the cost, 15 the benefit.

AM: European Volkswagen owners are hopping mad VW won’t compensate them for the over-polluting diesels the way it will in America. Is that likely to change?

MTO: I think the challenge for the Europeans is the legal underpinning of what the EPA did. Laws are much clearer in the U.S. versus what they are [in Europe]. … Don’t forget, we still have some of the world’s strongest environmental regulations when it comes to gasoline and diesel in cars. [European consumers are angry], but on the other hand there could be a silver lining for VW if it changes over to electric powertrains. It was the only European company not working very actively on electrics or fuel cells or hybrids. I’m an optimist by nature, and VW is a huge company. If it goes [big] into electric powertrains, it’s huge.

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