The EPA, Without Justification, Decided Buy America Does Not Apply to the Clean School Bus Program

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Oct 27 2022 |
Vice President Kamala Harris announced on Wednesday that nearly $1 billion will be allocated to school districts across the United States to purchase new clean school buses. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told us Buy America won’t apply, meaning these buses could be imported. Photo via @VP on Twitter

Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday that “domestic manufacturing” will play a big role in transitioning to electric school buses. Which is odd, because the EPA said Buy America provisions “do not apply” to the program.

Who doesn’t love a yellow school bus?

That was the question Vice President Kamala Harris posed on Wednesday during a trip to Seattle, where she announced that the federal government will allocate nearly $1 billion to school districts nationwide to buy new electric school buses.

The goal is to transition the nation’s fleet of yellow school buses to clean energy alternatives, which will help reduce carbon emissions. And in doing so, the veep argued, the United States can help build up its electric vehicle manufacturing.

“We all know when, during the height of the pandemic, we saw what it means when we don’t have domestic manufacturing around the things that we need every day: It slows us down,” Harris said. “We know that domestic manufacturing means that we can create jobs right here in the United States.” 

Wow, that sounds great… except that when it comes to the Clean School Bus Program, domestic manufacturing may not actually happen!

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is in charge of implementing this program, unilaterally decided that Buy America doesn’t apply to the purchase of the new 2,400 school buses. And that means a whole lot of those big yellow school buses could very well be imported.

Back in August, the Alliance for American Manufacturing sent comments to EPA Administrator Michael Regan noting that Build America, Buy America (BABA) provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) are clearly required when it comes to the Clean School Bus Program. We were concerned because in an initial January 2022 report to Congress on the progress of the implementation of the bus program, EPA had made “no mention of the clear BABA requirements for federal assistance infrastructure.”

We got a reply from the EPA on Oct. 13, which made it clear that the agency has no intention of following BABA guidelines. Joseph Goffman of the EPA wrote rather succinctly that the “EPA has determined that the BABA provisions do not apply to school buses purchased under the Clean School Bus Rebate Program.”

No justification for this bizarre decision was given, which is both concerning and bewildering. The BABA language in the new law is pretty clear — all that infrastructure money should be spent on American-made products, including for public transportation like school buses, as doing so will effectively double taxpayers investment. By applying Buy America to these purchases, the government has an opportunity not only to transition the nation’s school bus fleet to cleaner alternatives, but help strengthen an emerging industry at a critical time.

By deciding (again, without any justification) that BABA doesn’t apply to the program, the EPA is undermining both the intent of Congress and frankly, the effectiveness of the taxpayer money being spent.

Goffman noted in his letter that EPA will “encourage program participants to pursue domestically-produced equipment wherever possible.” But frankly, that’s a bunch of nonsense. Without applying BABA to the program, there’s nothing stopping school districts from purchasing imported buses.

And that’s a missed opportunity to invest in America’s electric vehicle manufacturers and workers — and it means that potentially hundreds of millions of dollars will go to support strategic rivals based overseas.

Vice President Harris was right on Wednesday when she said that not having domestic manufacturing for the things we need slows us down. It was one of the crucial lessons the United States was supposed to have learned during the pandemic. To its credit, the Biden administration has taken a number of solid steps forward to strengthen Buy America, and the president himself frequently talks about it.

Which is what makes the EPA’s decision to dismiss Buy America outright like this just so bizarre. The EPA needs to reverse this unjustified decision and get on board with Buy America.