ANN ARBOR, MI. – A room full of sparkling new silver diesel engines, a car running automatically on its own treadmill, a mammoth truck with its insides displaying a new kind of fuel efficient technology.
These are just a few of the items you’ll find in an unassuming, sprawling government building. With the cumbersome title National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory, this building in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is part of the Environmental Protection Agency, and like many government buildings, it appears at first glance to be dull and unexceptional. But under its roof, you can discover some of the nation’s most important measures – and treasures – in the effort to address climate change.
The lab is part of the EPA Office of Air and Radiation’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. It is directed by Margo Oge (pronounced oh-gay), a long-time agency civil servant in Washington, D.C. Her deputy, Christopher Grundler, runs the Ann Arbor lab.
Oge says the lab addresses “a critical issue for public health, the economy and energy security” – making mobility and transportation sustainable.
The lab was established in 1971, shortly after EPA was created by an Executive Order signed by then-President Richard M. Nixon. Its fundamental purpose is to develop cost-effective standards to reduce harmful emissions from the transportation sector.
The lab is divided into six divisions: advance technology; assessment and standards; compliance and innovative strategies; laboratory operations; transportation and climate; and transportation and regional programs. The Ann Arbor location was chosen largely because of its proximity to domestic automobile manufacturers, as one of the lab’s core missions is to test vehicles to ensure they meet federal standards.
The lab employs more than 300 people and is responsible for developing regulations to reduce air pollution from light-duty cars, heavy-duty trucks and busses and non-road engines, such as lawnmowers and powered gardening equipment. Lab staffers also evaluate potential technologies to better control emissions, test vehicles engines and fuels, and ensure that cars meet federal emission and fuel economy standards. The lab often works with automakers and private sector companies to pilot test its engine technologies.
With its programs integral to the Obama administration’s plans to combat climate change, reporters can find a wealth of information at the lab. And the fact that it is removed from Washington means there’s less of a bureaucracy to penetrate. In fact, few of the employees have “political” rather than “career” status, making them civil servants rather than politically appointed individuals linked directly to the party in power.
Following are a few areas reporters can tap for potential stories that will appeal to a mainstream audience.
- New engine technologies. One of the goals of the lab is to make existing engines that work with conventional gasoline burn cleaner and more efficiently. It developed a partnership with UPS, the shipping company, to test one such technology, hydraulic hybrids, which brings big fuel economy benefits to large, commercial vehicles, like garbage trucks. Engineers at the lab are constantly at work on other kinds of technologies like these. These developments have the potential to make existing vehicles more fuel efficient, thereby reducing emissions linked to warming of the atmosphere.
- Areas with big investments. The mantra of “follow the money” applies to this arm of the federal government. If EPA is investing heavily in one particular area, chances are it’s considered a priority. So with the line-item budget in hand, reporters can track these outlays. The overall EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality budget is $162 million. Of that, $60 million is devoted to grant funds for diesel emission reduction projects.
- Diesel engines. Though diesel engines historically have been very dirty, new developments that clean up the nitrogen oxides emissions have made them a promising fuel-efficient technology. Making diesels clean remains “an important issue,” Oge said in an e-mail response to questions. She said she expects “continued success” in implementing tough rules for diesels used both in cars, big trucks and busses, and off-road engines. Oge says the standards “are the strongest in the world” and could provide the U.S. more than $180 billion in benefits when they are fully under way. This clearly is an area reporters would do well to watch closely.
- Ocean vessels. Though this is off the beaten path of cars, EPA and the Coast Guard in March announced establishment of an emission control area around the nation’s coastline that would create stricter standards on oil tankers and other large ships that spew harmful emissions into the air near coastal communities. After first proposing rules, the agency could adopt them as early as next year. The preliminary research on this effort was performed at the EPA Ann Arbor lab.
- Clean fuels. The lab is at the forefront of evaluating which types of fuels are the most effective, yet are best for the environment. Tracking which of these could work best in the nation’s environmentally-friendly cars could lead to news stories important to the climate change issue generally.
- Fuel efficiency. The lab tests vehicles to ensure they meet fuel economy standards. How they do this – and simulate real-world driving conditions – is an interesting story for general audiences, who often are curious about whether their vehicle really will achieve the advertised fuel economy number.
- Non-road engines. EPA has issued emission rules to address a previously unregulated sector: for instance, engines for lawnmowers and other small devices like powered garden tools that contribute a significant portion of emissions. How developers of these engines adapt to the changing rules, and market their new, cleaner equipment, is another potential area of focus.
- EPA/private industry partnerships. It’s worth watching which technologies EPA chooses to pilot test with the private sector, to determine which areas it thinks have the most commercial and environmental promise.
Many of the issues coming out of the lab are extremely technical, so it naturally pays for reporters to do their homework. Many reporters, especially those without experience on the environment, will need to spend time researching and understanding some of the more intricate engineering details on these issues.
Their investment AND time will be worth it, because of the importance of the lab’s programs and the significance of those programs to climate change and other energy and environmental issues.
Useful EPA Websites and Outside Organizations’ Sites
Here are some helpful resources for tracking mobile source/air quality-climate change issues:
A general website on the Office of Transportation and Air Quality: www.epa.gov/otaq
Reach the EPA headquarters press office at 202-564-4355. Reporters may need to contact the press office to get in touch with the appropriate expert to interview at the lab.
Get a list of the agency’s subject areas for media requests at
Reporters can sign up to receive news releases at: www.epa.gov/newsroom/email_signups.htm.
A fact sheet on the lab is at: www.epa.gov/otaq/consumer/420f04058.pdf.
Another useful link describing the lab is at: www.epa.gov/nvfel.
Some links to organizations that track EPA motor vehicle issues:
- The Ecology Center’s Clean Car Campaign
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (another helpful resource on fuel economy standards).
- The Electric Power Research Institute for information on electric vehicles.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists tracks global warming, with a technical focus.
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
- American Petroleum Institute