Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday that “domestic manufacturing” will play a big role in the transition to electric school buses. Which is odd because the EPA said the Buy America regulations “do not apply” to the program.
Who doesn’t love a yellow school bus?
That was the question Vice President Kamala Harris asked Wednesday on a trip to Seattlewhere she announced that the federal government will provide nearly $1 billion to school districts across the country to purchase new electric school buses.
The aim is to switch the national fleet of yellow school buses to clean energy alternatives, which will help reduce carbon emissions. And that way, the veep argues, the United States can help build its electric vehicle production.
“We all know when we saw during the height of the pandemic what it means when we don’t have local manufacturing around the things we need every day: it slows us down,” Harris said. “We know that manufacturing locally means we can create jobs right here in the United States.”
Wow, that sounds great… except when it comes to the clean school bus program, local manufacturing may not actually happen!
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers this program, has unilaterally decided that Buy America does not apply to the purchase of 2,400 new school buses. And that means a lot of those big yellow school buses can be imported.
Back in August, the Alliance for American Manufacturing sent comments to EPA Administrator Michael Regan noting that the Build America, Buy America (BABA) provisions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) are clearly needed when it comes to the clean school bus. We were concerned because in an initial January 2022 report to Congress on the progress of implementing the bus program, EPA “did not mention BABA’s clear infrastructure requirements for federal assistance.”
We received a response from the EPA on October 13, which made it clear that the agency does not intend to follow the BABA guidelines. EPA’s Joseph Goffman wrote rather succinctly that “EPA has determined that the BABA provisions do not apply to school buses purchased under the Clean School Bus Rebate Program.”
No rationale was given for this odd decision, which is both disturbing and confusing. The BABA language in the new law is pretty clear – all that infrastructure money should be spent on American-made products, including public transportation like school buses, because that would effectively double the taxpayer investment. By applying Buy America to these purchases, the government has an opportunity to not only transition the nation’s school bus fleet to cleaner alternatives, but also help bolster an emerging industry at a critical time.
By deciding (again, without any justification) that BABA does not apply to the program, the EPA is undermining both the intent of Congress and, frankly, the effectiveness of taxpayer money spent.
Goffman noted in his letter that the EPA will “encourage program participants to pursue domestically produced equipment whenever possible.” But frankly, it’s a bunch of bullshit. Without BABA applying to the program, there is nothing to prevent school districts from purchasing imported buses.
And that’s a missed opportunity to invest in America’s electric vehicle manufacturers and workers — and that means potentially hundreds of millions of dollars will go to support strategic competitors based overseas.
Vice President Harris was right Wednesday when he said the lack of local manufacturing for the things we need is holding us back. This was one of the most important lessons the United States had to learn during the pandemic. To his credit, the Biden administration has taken a number of solid steps forward to strengthen Buy America, and the president himself has often talked about it.
That’s what makes the EPA’s decision to reject Buy America outright in this way so strange. EPA should reverse this unjustified decision and join Buy America.