Debunking Junk Studies

When spreading disinformation about electric vehicles, commentators will often reference the same handful of reports and studies, most of which are linked connected to Koch and oil industry funding. Learn more about these reports, including who wrote and paid for them, and find links to the best rebuttals and debunkings below. 

‘Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies’ by Jonathan Lesser for the Manhattan Institute: This report is often cited to support obviously misleading claims that widespread adoption of electric cars would increase air pollution and have a negligible impact on the global climate.

‘Costly Subsidies For the Rich’ by Wayne Winegarden for the Pacific Research Institute: This report is often cited to support misleading claims that the EV tax credit only benefits the rich, but it relies on outdated data and entirely ignores the significant role that leased vehicles play in the EV market. 

Survey on Electric Vehicle Subsidies by MWR Resources for the American Energy AllianceThis “highly biased” poll purports to reveal voter sentiment about the environmental virtues and federal support of electric vehicles, and voter opinions on auto efficiency standards. However, it was commissioned by an oil industry-funded think tank run by a former Koch Industries lobbyist, and was conducted by a polling firm that includes Koch Industries and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers among its clients. When pressed on why they included incorrect information in the poll questions, the pollster even admitted that “it’s entirely possible something was incorrectly adjusted during the question formation of the poll.”

‘Economic Impacts of Eliminating the Manufacturers’ Cap on the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Tax Credit’ by NERA Economic Consulting for Flint Hills Resources: This study, commissioned by a subsidiary of Koch Industries and conducted by the firm that produced key reports defending the tobacco industry, is referenced to support macroeconomic arguments against lifting the cap of the EV tax credit. 

‘Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies’ by Jonathan Lesser for the Manhattan Institute

In May 2018, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research published a report, “Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicles,” by Jonathan Lesser that makes a number of demonstrably false claims about electric vehicles (EVs).

By cherry-picking data, disregarding greenhouse gas emissions, and conducting analysis based on discredited assumptions, Lesser claims that widespread adoption of electric cars would increase air pollution and have a negligible impact on the global climate. In another section, Lesser criticizes government subsidies and policies that support the deployment of electric vehicles and EV infrastructure, while ignoring the at least $4 billion in subsidies and tax preferences that the oil and gas industry benefit from every year, amounting to hundreds of billions in taxpayer support for oil producers and refiners over the past century

Lesser promoted the report in a commentary published in Politico, titled “Are electric cars worse for the environment?” The commentary uses the easily debunked findings of Lesser’s report to argue that electric vehicle subsidies “might be counterproductive.” 

The report and Politico commentary are often cited by politicians and advocates who oppose electric vehicle-friendly policies and subsidies. 

Jonathan Lesser’s ‘High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies’ Report, Debunked

Many experts in the electric vehicle and energy industry have directly rebutted and debunked the research in Lesser’s report. 

Lynn Daniels and Edward J. Klock-McCook of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) published the most comprehensive and authoritative rebuttal to Lesser’s report. Daniels and Klock-McCook write:

Conclusions are reached through misrepresentation and reliance on projections that are known to be consistently inaccurate. The same poor methods are applied to the economics of electric vehicles (EVs) and to questions about the profitability of, and public investment in, EV charging infrastructure.

RMI further explains that “Lesser cherry-picked the pollutants that support his narrative (in this case, SO2, NOX, and PMs [particulate matter]) and ignored the pollutant (CO2) that contradicts his narrative. A methodology that accurately accounts for all emissions results in a dramatically different result.”

The article continues to explain why the analysis of Lesser’s preferred three criteria air pollutants is itself faulty, as it depends on Energy Information Agency projections of the fuel mix for electricity generation and the levels of electric vehicle adoption through 2050, noting that “those EIA long-term forecasts are notoriously inaccurate, consistently underestimating renewables penetration and overestimating grid emissions.” The result is a “reference case for both ZEV [zero-emissions vehicle] penetration and the mix of electricity generation sources [that] will nearly certainly overestimate [electric vehicle] emissions.” 

The authors also debunk claims about the “negligible” climate impacts of electric cars, and the effectiveness and equity of electric vehicle and EV infrastructure investments.  

Daniels and Klock-McCook conclude, “Lesser’s analysis relies on projections that are recognized to be conservative; it ignores the positive carbon benefits of ZEVs; it misrepresents EVSE infrastructure investments; and it fails to provide adequate context so that ZEV subsidies, costs, and impacts may be compared to the status quo. At RMI, we believe that regardless of how you tweak the analysis or which projections you choose, ZEVs offer significant positive benefits in all scenarios.”

Even using the criteria pollutants that Lesser cherry-picks, a peer-reviewed scientific study disputes Lesser’s claims that electric cars will cause greater pollution. As David Pomerantz of the Energy and Policy Institute notes:

[A] peer-reviewed study by scientists from the Carnegie Mellon Vehicle Electrification Group did look at those other pollutants in 2016. They examined EVs in one of the coal-heaviest parts of the country (the PJM grid) and found that by 2018, coal plant retirements would make EVs as clean or cleaner than gasoline-powered cars on those other pollutant fronts too. Even if one were to discount the climate benefits of electric vehicles entirely, Lesser’s argument on these other kinds of pollution does not hold water. (Lesser’s report fails to acknowledge virtually any information from peer-reviewed studies like that one which have looked at the effects of electric vehicles on pollution.)

To the issue of tax incentives and subsidies, on CleanTechnica, Zachary Shahan goes to great lengths to put electric vehicle incentives in proper context, comparing them to current and historic subsidies for the oil and gas industry.

Best Rebuttals to Lesser’s Flawed Electric Vehicle Report:

The Manhattan Institute: The Oil-Funded Think Tank that Paid for Jonathan Lesser’s Flawed Electric Vehicle Report 

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is a conservative think tank that receives extensive funding from the oil and gas industry, including ExxonMobil, the Koch Family Foundations, and the Mercer Family Foundation.  Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, sits on the Manhattan Institute’s board of directors. 

The Manhattan Institute and its experts have frequently published pieces and made public comments that deny the scientific consensus on climate change, including listing global warming as a top ten “environmental myth.

As recently as 2011, the Manhattan Institute, argued aggressively for the preservation of the oil and gas tax breaks

Jonathan Lesser: The ‘Short Circuit’ Report Author  

Lesser is frequently contracted by the Manhattan Institute, where he has the title of adjunct fellow. Lesser is a president of Continental Economic, where he serves as an energy industry consultant for electric utilities and oil and gas companies. He has a long track record of providing testimony and writing commentaries that dismiss the scientific consensus on climate change, and overestimate costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy resources.

According to his CV, Lesser has submitted expert testimony and reports on behalf of major utility and fossil fuel interests like Exelon, Occidental, Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, Shell, various state-based gas and utility companies, and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, an anti-wind farm group with a Koch brother as its chairman.

As recently as 2014, Lesser repeated the common climate denier myth that “global temperatures have not risen for the last 15 years,” a point that has been rebutted and disproven completely

‘Costly Subsides For the Rich’ by Wayne Winegarden for the Pacific Research Institute

In February 2018, the Pacific Research Institute published a report, “Costly Subsidies for the Rich,” by Wayne Winegarden that misleadingly portrays the electric vehicle (EV) tax credit and other government support for plug-in vehicles as anti-competitive and not beneficial to the average consumer or the environment.

By cherrypicking outdated statistics and ignoring leases, Winegarden asserts that “79 percent of electric vehicle plug-in tax credits were claimed by households with adjusted gross incomes of greater than $100,000 per year.”

Winegarden promoted his report in a commentary for Investors Business Daily, titled “Are Electric Car Subsidies Just Giveaways to the Wealthy?” The PRI report has since been cited repeatedly in a growing number of op-eds and commentaries—including many written by and promoted by the Koch network—including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, the National Review, and more. The report is also cited in multiple letters from Koch-affiliated think tanks and front groups to Congressional leaders opposing the EV tax credit.

Wayne Winegarden’s ‘Costly Subsidies for the Rich’ Report, Debunked

The “Costly Subsidies” report’s author relies on outdated data from 2014, when the EV market was still in its infancy and many of the mid-range models that are available today had not yet been introduced. Additionally, the IRS data that Winegarden relies on does not factor in the significant role that leases play in the EV market. Through 2017, the vast majority of EVs were leased—a full 80% of non-Tesla EVs and still well more than half of all EVs including Tesla, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

As Wade Malone explains in InsideEVs, these leases have a trickle down effect of making EVs available to all economic classes.

[Leases are] appealing to many middle class buyers for a variety of reasons. The buyer is able to see an immediate reduction in their monthly payment rather than waiting until tax filing season to receive a full or partial tax credit. Secondly, EV tech is rapidly improving. Leasing allows buyers to drive for 3 or 4 years, then move on to the next generation of electrics.

When the vehicle is turned in at the end of a lease, the car hits the used market at a reduced price. Because a used electric car is no longer eligible for the $7,500 tax credit, dealers price it factoring in the full credit. Otherwise, purchasing new would be more cost effective over used. Because of this, middle class and lower middle class buyers can affordably finance a used EV or PHEV [plug-in electric vehicle]. It is not simply the wealthy who benefit.

While falsely claiming that nearly 80 percent of all EV credits benefit households that earn more than $100,000, the report ignores the fact that the average income of households that purchase any new vehicle — plug-in or gasoline powered — is even higher than that. According to a report by the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, the average household income for new car buyers was $119,400 in 2012.

The Pacific Research Institute: The Oil-Funded Think Tank that Published Wayne Winegarden’s Flawed Electric Vehicle Tax Credit Report

The Pacific Research Institute (PRI), known as the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (PRIPP) until 1984, is a conservative think tank with close ties to the American Enterprise Institute. PRI receives extensive funding from the oil and gas industry, including the Koch Family Foundations, Koch Industries, the Scaife Foundations, ExxonMobil, and Donors Trust and Donors Capital Funds.

The PRI has received over $1.7 million in donations from Koch-related foundations$3.8 million from Scaife foundations, and $615,000 from the oil company ExxonMobil. The Pacific Research Institute also received over $1.5 million from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, two groups that have been described as the “Dark Money ATM” of the conservative movement. 

Wayne Winegarden: The “Costly Subsidies” Report Author

Wayne Winegarden is an economist who serves as a Senior Fellow in Business & Economics for the Pacific Research Institute and is the Principal of Capitol Economic Advisors. Earlier in his career, Winegarden worked for Phillip Morris, where he authored numerous reports claiming that excise taxes on cigarettes were highly regressive and unfairly punitive for low-income consumers.

Winegarden was also a partner at Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics, a conservative economic consulting firm that was an influential member of ALEC and has numerous ties to the Koch network

Winegarden has written that global warming is a “scam.” In recent years, he has published a number of reports for PRI arguing against the EV tax credit, the Clean Power Plan, and the Obama-era clean car standards.

Survey on Electric Vehicle Subsidies by MWR Resources for the American Energy Alliance

In June and October of 2019, the American Energy Alliance released and publicized the results of a survey about the electric vehicle tax credit that the group had commissioned. The surveys were used as “evidence” that Americans did not want to subsidize EVs purchased by other consumers. However, polling experts quickly condemned the surveys as “highly biased” and designed to solicit a certain response and produce results to serve a predetermined narrative that supports the oil industry’s interests.

The AEA Electric Vehicle Tax Credit Survey, Debunked

MWR’s polling strategy appears to be posing misleading questions, some with inaccurate information, in order to garner a particular response. In the recent surveys MWR conducted on the EV tax credit, one of the statements that respondents could agree or disagree with was, “it is not right for GM to ask taxpayers for a tax credit.” General Motors is lobbying to extend and expand the electric car tax credit, but the automaker would not actually claim the credit — consumers would. 

Another question claims that “the average buyer of an electric car makes more than 150 thousand dollars per year,” a claim that is demonstrably false. When pressed by a reporter for DeSmog for a citation or clarification, MRW pointed to the Jonathan Lesser study referenced above. When informed that even the flawed Lesser study didn’t say what they question said, the pollster’s PR team admitted to DeSmog that “it’s entirely possible something was incorrectly adjusted during the question formation of the poll.”

That report actually cites a 2013 UC-Davis study that examined “the characteristics of 1,200 households who actually purchased a new plug-in vehicle in California during 2011-2012,” finding that “46 percent of electric car drivers in California alone had incomes above $150,000.” This study, now six years old, does not translate to the statement regarding an “average buyer” that was presented in the survey. In effect, the survey question was premised on a falsified statistic from an outdated data set that only included California. 

Polling and communication experts told the DeSmog reporter that these EV tax credit surveys should not be considered legitimate measures of public opinion. Many of the questions are actually statements that respondents can agree or disagree with. But according to polling expert Joshua Dyck, associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell and director of the Center for Public Opinion, “Agree/disagree items are not a legitimate way to determine public opinion on policy issues.” 

There is a well known response bias for respondents in surveys to agree to prompts in questions structured as agree/disagree items,” he said. “This is known to survey researchers by the term ‘response acquiescence.’ In order to get at how respondents actually feel, you should allow respondents to pick from balanced options. I wouldn’t put much stock in the agree/disagree items in this survey.

Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, also said these surveys were designed to be misleading. 

Unbiased survey questions intended to elicit people’s opinions about or support for a proposition (such as a proposed public policy) can be done in one of two ways. The proposition can be stated in neutral, factual terms with or without the leading arguments both for and against the proposition. The questions on AEA surveys did not state the facts about the propositions, but instead made negative claims about the consequences of the propositions. Therefore, people were responding to the negative statements made about the proposition, not the proposition itself. 

The poll done for AEA was not intended to determine how people actually feel about public policies in support of EVs, rather it was done to give the impression that people do not support use of public resources to support EVs.

American Energy Alliance and MWR Strategies: Biased Advocates Pretending to Conduct Nonpartisan Polling

The group that commissioned the survey, the AEA, is a self-described “advocacy” organization, which according to its website, “engages in grassroots public policy advocacy and debate concerning energy and environmental policies.”

The president of AEA, Tom Pyle, has a long history of working with and for the Koch brothers and Koch Industries. Pyle was the top lobbyist at Koch Industries, and then later as a private lobbyist, he lobbied on behalf of Koch Industries and the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association (now the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers), of which Koch Industries is a core member and beneficiary.

The poll itself was conducted by long-time energy lobbyist Mike McKenna for MWR Strategies, a lobbying firm with clients including Koch Industries and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.

The AEA is a central player in the Koch-funded campaign to kill the EV tax credit and suppress sales of electric cars. Under Pyle’s watch, the group has coordinated a number of letters to Congress opposing the tax credit, and consistently pushes deceptive talking points to mislead the public and policymakers on the economic and environmental benefits of electric cars.

‘Economic Impacts of Eliminating the Manufacturers’ Cap on the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Tax Credit’ by NERA Economic Consulting for Flint Hills Resources

In 2018, NERA Economic Consulting published study on the “economic impacts” of extending the EV tax credit. The study was commissioned by by Flint Hills Resources, an oil refinery group and fuels marketing company that is also a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.

The American Energy Alliance issued a press release about the study, quoting former Koch Industries lobbyist and current AEA President Thomas Pyle. The group also delivered copies of the NERA study to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

NERA Economic Consulting: Industry-Friendly Studies for Hire

In the early 1990s, Phillip Morris hired NERA to produce reports that would argue against the health benefits of smoking bans in restaurants and workplaces. Another NERA report commissioned by Phillip Morris found no connection between advertising and smoking rates, providing tobacco companies with literature to argue against cigarette advertising bans.

Foreshadowing today’s deployment of NERA materials in an auto policy debate, in 2001 a NERA study was used to fight against a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate in California.

More recently, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was finalizing the Clean Power Plan in 2014, NERA issued a report claiming that Obama’s signature climate plan would greatly increase electricity bills. Despite the fact that the NERA study used faulty efficiency cost assumptions, out-of-date renewable energy cost assumptions, and did not include any economic benefits of efficiency and emissions reductions, the study was regularly cited and parroted by media outlets.