Opinion: Propane isn’t the solution for school buses

Going electric is.

A zero-emissions bus parked in front of City Hall

A zero-emissions bus parked in front of City Hall Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Every weekday, more than 50,000 public school buses transport more than two million young New Yorkers, the majority of whom are students of color, to school and home again. On their daily commute, they’re surrounded by the harmful emissions released by fossil fuel-burning vehicles. In environmental justice communities, the impact of these vehicles is compounded by other pollution sources, such as power plants, and exacerbates existing health challenges, like asthma, that disproportionately affect children of color. 

But with the arrival of zero-emission school bus technology and ever-improving batteries, the nation’s student transportation fleet is on the cusp of a radical and much-needed transition to zero-emissions vehicles that would lead to cleaner, healthier air for kids and neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.

The workers who drive and maintain school buses would also benefit by avoiding harmful emissions at work daily. If this transition is managed successfully, it can provide major benefits and opportunities for workers. But workers often shoulder the burden of technological change. The workers in these fossil fuel industries must be taken into account during this transition to zero-emission school buses. The transition should not be an "either/or" choice between good family-sustaining jobs in the fossil fuel industry and good-paying job opportunities in the zero-emission school bus sector. 

We must transition away from all fossil fuel-burning vehicles, but lately, there have been efforts by the fossil fuel industry to convince us that propane is a healthy alternative to gasoline. (They’re also hard at work trying to convince the public that banning gas hookups in new buildings – which would lead to significant decreases in environmental pollution and would improve public health – is a bad thing, and lobbying hard against the electrification provisions in the budget this year.)

Don't believe it: as with electric buildings, transitioning to zero-emission school buses in New York is the true solution.

These lies are being spread by the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC), a fossil fuel industry group funded by propane providers. Over the years, PERC has spent millions to combat electrification and slow down renewable energy alternatives. Last year, PERC gave $900,000 to the New York Propane Gas Association (NYPGA) to lobby against important climate legislation, attacking what it called the “massive challenge from well-funded efforts to electrify the entire state.” In fact, PERC even paid social media influencers to promote propane-fueled buses, downplaying the benefits of zero-emission buses when we know they’re cheaper, more efficient, and more popular.

And where did PERC get all this money to fight good environmental and electrification policy in New York State? The answer is from people who buy propane to heat their homes. PERC charges a fee on every gallon of propane it sells and collects millions of dollars a year in funds that are supposed to be used for education and research. 

We know electrification works because it's healthy and affordable. Traditional school buses spew toxic diesel fumes as they drive, and the exhaust is even worse inside the cabin – leading to higher rates of asthma students and drivers commuting to school and ultimately lower test scores for students. Zero-emission school buses avoid all that exhaust entirely, helping both fight climate change and keep the air clean.

New York City has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the United States. Children affected by air pollutants, who are disproportionately located in Black and Latino communities, are more likely to develop respiratory illnesses and exhibit cognitive challenges due to long-term exposure to high levels of pollution, putting their health and future at risk. Our fossil fuel-powered cars and buses pollute the air and harm not only the people who travel in and operate them, but also pedestrians, cyclists, and other commuters.

Electrifying school buses will not just help students. It also will create a better and healthier working environment as workers will no longer have to contend with the air pollution and noise generated by diesel engines. But there needs to be a well-planned transition that funds pension compensation for retiring fossil fuel workers, retraining programs for those able to transition to the green economy and genuine opportunities for impacted fossil fuel workers to be heard and contribute to this transition. We must implement sound policies to ensure that the electrification of school bus fleets quickly delivers on its full potential: cleaner, healthier air for kids and neighborhoods, and good, inclusive, family-sustaining jobs.

Nationwide, grassroots community leaders have been working to ensure that every school in the state can access funds and technical support to get truly clean buses – and with them, safer and healthier children. The EPA has allocated $5 billion to help school districts transition to zero-emission school buses, and stackable incentives can make them almost free. New York City is using an $18.5 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency with funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to purchase 51 zero-emission school buses.

Last year’s state budget includes a plan to make 100% of the state’s school buses zero-emission by 2035. In New York, the NY Renews coalition – the state's largest climate justice coalition – has included over $200 million in their recent state budget proposal to help build zero-emission buses, filling gaps in state and federal spending to electrify school and city buses in accordance with the state's 2035 mandate.

Statewide coalitions like NY Renews and organizations working at the city level are working around the clock to identify and support real solutions that work for their communities – be they in Brooklyn, Buffalo, Westchester or Montauk. State legislators should be mindful of the false claims made by fossil fuel industry campaigns and keep their eyes on the true goal put forth by community leaders: bold investments in an electrification plan will not only improve our air and the health of our children, but could set a standard for other U.S. states. 

Whether it’s gas, propane, or diesel, we must transition from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy as quickly as possible to stop polluting communities, poisoning families and damaging our climate.