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EPA Adopts Stronger Standards on Gasoline and Cars to Reduce Smog and Soot

Luke Tonachel

Posted February 28, 2014

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Over 130 million Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. In those areas, automobiles are responsible for as much as 45 percent of the emissions that dirty the air with smog and soot. That’s why it’s a triumph for the environment and public health that the U.S. EPA has finalized new gasoline and car standards to reduce smog and soot pollution. The new standards will save lives, reduce asthma attacks and help keep people healthy, which will enhance lives and benefit the economy.

The general public and a broad, diverse group of stakeholders support the new standards but the oil industry, alone in their opposition, has tried—and failed—to obstruct them. The oil industry protests that reducing pollution-causing sulfur in gasoline will be too expensive, misleadingly overestimating costs at six to nine cents per gallon. (As noted in NRDC’s comments to EPA, the oil industry has a history of inflating costs of producing cleaner fuels.) EPA’s analysis (and that of oil industry analysts) shows that the Big Oil accounting is wrong. The agency estimates that cleaning up gasoline will cost less than a penny a gallon. At the same time, with cleaner gasoline and cars, Americans will save up to $19 billion per year in avoided health care costs under the new standards.

Tier 3 Standards

The new “Tier 3” standards finalized by EPA strengthen the existing Tier 2 standards for gasoline and cars. Tier 3 requires gasoline sulfur to be reduced by two-thirds from today’s annual average level of 30 parts per million (ppm) to 10 ppm by January 2017. The cleaner gasoline will have an immediate effect of making all vehicles on the road pollute less because lower sulfur allows exhaust systems to be more effective. The near-term smog-forming nitrogen oxide reductions from cleaner gasoline are roughly equivalent to that achieved by replacing 30 million of today’s cars with zero-emitting vehicles.

Cleaner, low-sulfur gasoline also enables automakers to design new cars that achieve deeper pollution reductions. Starting in model year 2017, automakers will phase in tighter standards on nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter. By model year 2025, when the standards are fully implemented, the new vehicle fleet will meet an average tailpipe emission rate for the combination of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) of 30 milligrams per mile, which is about an 80 percent reduction from today’s average of 160 milligrams per mile. Per-vehicle maximum particulate matter emissions will also be reduced by 70 percent from today’s 10 ppm to 3 ppm in 2025.

Tier 3 also includes tighter standards on gasoline vapor emissions that occur when a car is being driven, is parked and being refueled. Tier 3 will cut evaporative emissions from new cars by about 50 percent.

EPA estimates that tighter emissions controls to meet Tier 3 standards will add about $72 to the cost of a new car, or less than a half percent increase on a $15,000 vehicle.

Less Pollution Improves Public Health and Saves Money

By dramatically cutting emissions of NOx, VOCs and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the Tier 3 standards will reduce dangerous smog and soot pollution and boost the health of Americans. Ground-level ozone, the principal component of smog, is a major contributor to asthma attacks, other respiratory illnesses and even premature deaths. Likewise, exposure to particular matter, or soot, can severely limit proper heart and lung function and cause premature death. Small children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to dirty air.

According to EPA, Tier 3 standards will avoid up to 2,000 premature deaths annually by 2030. Americans will also avoid thousands of asthma-related emergency room visits and millions of lost school and work days. By preventing dirty air-induced deaths and sicknesses, the U.S. will save between $7 and $19 billion each year by 2030. Compared to total program costs in 2030, estimated by EPA at $1.5 billion in refinery desulfurization upgrades and new vehicle systems, the monetary public health benefits are 4 to 12 times larger than the costs.   

Clearly, the Tier 3 gasoline and car standards make good sense. The new standards will clean our air, protect our health and save lives – all at minimal cost. Despite Big Oil’s efforts to protect huge profits, EPA has set necessary and common-sense protections for air quality and public health. For millions of Americans the new standards make breathing easier.

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Rick BakerMar 4 2014 11:33 AM

Reducing the sulphur content is a great idea! What happens to older vehicles when they are run on this low sulphur gas? Will there be maintenance issues? What happens when combined with the 10% Ethanol additive?

Luke TonachelMar 7 2014 11:42 AM

Thanks for your comment and questions. Under lower sulfur Tier 3 gasoline, older vehicles will pollute less but should otherwise continue to operate as they do with today’s Tier 2-compliant gasoline. Further, older vehicles should not have additional maintenance issues as a result of Tier 3 gasoline. Sulfur can be reduced without changing fuel properties that would affect engine operation and durability. That remains true with the 10% ethanol additive, which is maintained from Tier 2 to Tier 3 gasoline. Also, there’s recent history to support this. Under the Tier 2 program, a larger sulfur reduction, from 300 ppm to 30, was achieved between 2000 and 2007 without taking older cars off the road. In fact, with removal of the sulfur fuel contaminant we expect more effective catalyst operation and less harmful emissions from all vehicles on the road.

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