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Diesel Technology Under Fire as EU Sues to Decrease Pollution

Updated on
  • EU sues Germany, 5 others for disrespecting agreed standard
  • Germany also gets EU warning on type approval for diesel cars

The diesel engine received another major blow after the European Union sued Germany and five other member states for exceeding pollution limits caused by the embattled technology.

Potential fallout from Thursday’s suit will hit Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and BMW AG in particular because the German auto industry is much more reliant on diesel engines for sales than rivals elsewhere. The EU’s actions are also like to add fuel to those fighting to enforce diesel driving bans in many of Germany’s larger cities.

The European Commission’s suit against Germany, the U.K., France, Italy, Romania and Hungary said they failed to meet limits on nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, which are mostly caused by road traffic, industry, heating and agriculture. The EU on Thursday also sent out warning letters to Germany and other members asking for more information about how they approve vehicles for road use as part of a probe linked to VW’s cheating scandal.

Diesel engines are the main emitters of nitrogen oxides, which cause respiratory problems and has been linked to premature deaths. Under EU rules, member countries are required to keep the gas to under 40 micrograms per cubic meter. In 2017 -- seven years after the 2010 deadline -- the average levels in Stuttgart, home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, were about double what’s allowed. Some 65 other German cities also fell short of meeting targets.

The countries being sued “have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation,” EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said. “It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale.”

Diesel Bans

Germany’s top administrative court in February issued a ground-breaking ruling pushing cities toward removing older diesel vehicles from inner cities to improve air quality, including banning some cars. The ruling backed lower courts which argued that banning diesel cars in inner cities is the most effective way to cut exhaust-gas levels swiftly and meet European Union pollution limits.

Encouraged by government tax subsidies and loose regulations, the German auto industry invested heavily in diesel as a profitable stop-gap technology to meet tighter rules on carbon dioxide emissions. Standards will again tighten in 2021, which means carmakers risk fines as consumers desert diesel.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, under pressure to avoid driving bans that would harm Germany’s automakers, said her government has taken unprecedented steps to reduce pollution blamed on diesel cars and will pursue those measures.

“The European Commission certainly is aware of the path we’ve taken and I believe we will be making very quick progress on a number of fronts,” she told reporters at a European Union summit in Sofia.

Road Approvals

In the wake of Volkswagen’s cheating, the commission in 2016 opened cases against Germany, Luxembourg and the U.K. over how they approve vehicles for road use. On Thursday, the three countries received additional warning letters asking for more information on national investigations and legal proceedings.

"We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the car sector plays its part,” said EU Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska. “Manufacturers that keep disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing.”

Germany “strongly rejects” the accusation that it violated the EU’s car approval rules after taking “efficient and consistent measures,” Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer said.

“Of course the car companies will be held liable for their cheating,” Scheuer said.“No other member state has taken such wide-ranging and strict measures as Germany and communicated in such an open and transparent manner with the commission.”

— With assistance by Tony Czuczka, Jess Shankleman, and Geraldine Amiel

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