Volkswagen: Did automaker and Exxon pressure EU to ease regulations?

The latest EU emissions testing allow carmakers more leeway to exceed the legal limits for nitrogen oxides than they had requested. Now, it appears Volkswagen may have had a hand in pressuring regulators to be lenient.

Fabian Bimmer/AP/File
Greenpeace activists demonstrating as they stand on top of Volkswagen's "Sandkamp" gate in Wolfsburg, Germany in November.

At first glance, new European Union emissions-testing rules might seem to make it tougher for carmakers to cheat in the same way Volkswagen did with its diesel engines.

The new rules require on-road testing in real-world driving conditions, in addition to the laboratory dynamometer tests that VW successfully gamed with its "defeat device" software.

But when they were issued, the latest set of procedures also allowed carmakers more leeway to exceed the legal limits for nitrogen oxides than they had requested.

Now, it appears Volkswagen may have had a hand in pressuring regulators to be lenient.

In an e-mail to regulators, an unnamed VW executive argued for certain exemptions to new EU emissions-test rules, reports The New York Times.

The e-mail was written by the VW official on behalf of the European Automobile Manufacturer's Association trade group. Whether other carmakers in the group engaged in similar correspondence is unknown.

In the e-mail, VW argues against emissions tests that include cold starts, and driving at speeds above 100 mph.

While cold starts significantly increase the emissions from a gasoline engine, VW argued that the term "cold start" itself was not defined well enough for the purposes of testing, and thus should be eliminated entirely.

A European Commission spokesperson said regulators still plan to include cold-start testing in the new rules, which will take effect in 2017, assuming they are passed by the European Parliament.

The Volkswagen official also argued against emissions testing at speeds over 100 mph for performance cars--crossing out the proposed language from an excerpt included with the e-mail.

High-speed testing is particularly pertinent for Volkswagen, which owns several makers of performance cars, including Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, and Porsche.

A Volkswagen spokesperson said the company doesn't believe these tests are necessary, because drivers rarely reach speeds above 100 mph on European roads.

The author of the e-mail said the industry would collectively accept a speed limit of 91 mph--above the 81 mph it originally insisted on--if the high-speed test was scrapped.

And it appears to have won that battle.

The current rules call for a limit of 91 mph, with a "cushion" that allows speeds of up to 100 mph for no more than 3 percent of the time.

While the role of other carmakers in these lobbying efforts is still unknown, at least one more company pressured EU officials to be lenient.

ExxonMobil too lobbied against stricter emissions limits for European cars, as shown in documents obtained by Greenpeace's Energydesk.

In a presentation sent to EU officials, the oil giant argued that the transportation sector should not bear the main burden of emissions reductions.

It claimed electric cars and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles aren't ready for mass consumption, and that fossil fuels will remain prevalent for the time being.

Instead of stricter emissions standards, ExxonMobil advocated adding transportation emissions to the European Emissions Trading Scheme.

This would take some burden off carmakers by allowing them to purchase carbon credits, considered a cheaper alternative to developing more-efficient vehicles.

But many analysts have said this would have virtually no impact on the actual carbon emissions from cars on European roads.

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