Dieselgate fallout Minister Accused of Ducking Emissions Reform

In the aftermath of the Dieselgate scandal that has engulfed Volkswagen and damaged the whole German car industry, Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt seems to be ignoring the issue with his failure to enact reforms.
Quelle: dpa
Stuttgart will from next year ban high-emissions diesel vehicles from the city center on days when pollution is high.
(Source: dpa)

Germany’s Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt is seemingly reluctant to draw any painful conclusions from the diesel emissions scandal at Volkswagen.

In Brussels, Mr. Dobrindt is doing everything possible to delay tougher European Union rules on emission tests. In a public clash with Italy over suspicious pollution levels in several Fiat-Chrysler models, he is considering giving in. And experts have criticized his proposal to re-introduce an emissions test in the biannual German automobile inspection as ineffective.To make matters worse, he is now also caught up in a debate about banning diesel engines in cities on pollution-heavy days.

His ministry is yet to respond to many questions on these issues, for example, on the dearth of harsh sanctions for manufacturers who are dishonest over emissions controls, block access to information or cheat on emissions - as in Volkswagen’s case. This is despite E.U. regulations from 2007 demanding penalties.

Germany has fulfilled its obligations, according to Mr. Dobrindt’s office. Volkswagen was ordered to fix the vehicles at its own expense, the ministry said. So business as usual instead of a stiff penalty, then.

Transport Minister Dobrindt has simply ignored that diesel cars emit more nitrogen oxides than allowed. Anton Hofreiter, Green party leader

The European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, has now launched an infringement procedure against Germany and other E.U. countries.

The Commission also submitted, more than a year ago, far-reaching proposals for more stringent supervision to prevent manufacturers tinkering with their vehicles’ emissions in the future. Tangible evidence was found at several companies, although so far manipulations have only been proven at VW.

But the reform is stuck in the Council of Member States, where ministers sign off plans. Above all, Germany and Italy are slowing the process, according to sources. E.U. Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bieńkowska isn't mincing her words. "Some member states want to play for time in the hope that the status quo is maintained," Ms. Bieńkowska said. The delay is a "very bad signal to the public."

Although the Commission's plans have been on the table since January 2016, Mr. Dobrindt's department and the Ministry of Economics have still not found a common position on its central points. "The alignment within the federal government is ongoing," a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Economics said.

It seems the federal government is playing for time, as could be observed at a discussion among E.U. member states in Brussels on Monday. The Maltese government, which currently holds the E.U. presidency, pushed for an agreement to be reached during the next ministerial meeting in May.

But Germany is in no hurry: a discussion "at the political level is still premature," the German E.U. ambassador Peter Rösgen said on behalf of the German government. First, further consultations at the expert level are necessary, he added. Negotiations could drag on until the end of the year or perhaps even longer, according to people close to the government.

There are two proposals at the reform’s core: In addition to the national supervisory authorities, European Commission experts will be allowed to randomly test existing vehicles and order recalls, when deemed necessary. This is intended to ensure the investigations’ independence. In addition, national authorities would monitor each other in order to prevent individual countries turning a blind eye on domestic manufacturers and testing laboratories. Mr. Dobrindt is in favor of a clearing house, in the case of a conflict between national authorities, a spokesman said.

But the minister seems to have lost his resolve in other areas, for example in his dispute with Italy. Last summer, he asked the Commission to intervene after tests by the Federal Motor Transport Authority "provided evidence of improper shutdown" in four vehicles made by Fiat-Chrysler. The minister wanted to invite Fiat to talk to his agency about the findings, but its management declined. In a press release, Mr. Dobrindt raged about "uncooperative behavior" in spite of specific allegations. But the government in Rome demurred — it doesn't see any wrongdoing on the part of the Italian car maker.

Stuttgart will implement a ban on some diesel cars starting in 2018 when air quality is poor, but support for the move is mixed.

Now, after six months, ongoing mediation talks in Brussels are nearing completion and Mr. Dobrindt seems willing to drop the matter.

The Commission is not willing to get involved, as its own emissions tests have not weakened the allegations against Fiat. It has reserved the right to begin further infringement procedures, according to sources close to the Commission.

Critics say it is this soft approach that is also partly responsible for lukewarm bans on diesel vehicles on pollution-heavy days in cities, one Stuttgart will implement in 2018. Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks has welcomed the move while Mr. Dobrindt has criticized it. Taxis, buses or government vehicles equipped with low-emission engines are more effective in Mr. Dobrindt’s view, according to a spokesperson. Ms. Hendricks has accused Mr. Dobrindt of lacking a concept to permanently cut air pollution.

In an election year, the brouhaha is a godsend for the Green party. "Transport Minister Dobrindt has simply ignored that diesel cars emit more nitrogen oxides than allowed," said Anton Hofreiter, who leads the Greens in Germany's parliament. "Now he’s blocking [the system] that municipalities could introduce to lower the burden of traffic-related nitrogen oxides."

Mr. Dobrindt has other plans. He wants to resume testing emissions during the general inspection required of all cars in Germany. He proposes testing emissions directly at the exhaust pipe, instead of relying on computer data, as is currently the case. But technical experts from the Germany automobile association ADAC are not convinced of the method’s efficacy, according to documents obtained by Handelsblatt.

Targeted emissions testing must make "greater use of vehicles’ onboard diagnostics and exhaust sensors," in the future, according to the document. Manufacturers must ensure and demonstrate the devices suitability. "A link between the manipulation of the exhaust emissions by automobile manufacturers and the reintroduction of the tailpipe measurement for all motor vehicles is not comprehensible," according to the organization. Manufacturers’ manipulations can't be uncovered by this method, the document says.


Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. Silke Kersting reports for Handelsblatt from Berlin, focusing on consumer protection, construction, environmental policy and climate change. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]