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EPA Proposes Stronger Standards on Gasoline and Cars to Reduce Smog

Luke Tonachel

Posted March 29, 2013

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In a step forward that will help Americans breathe easier, the U.S. EPA today proposed long-awaited standards to clean up gasoline and cut smog-forming pollution from cars and light trucks. Now the EPA should complete the process of making the standards the law of the land.

The oil industry, however, is trying to block the path to cleaner fuel and air. In an effort to protect every cent of their record profits, the oil industry is opposing EPA standards that reduce sulfur levels in gasoline and immediately reduce pollution. According to the EPA cleaner gasoline will cost less than a penny per gallon while Americans would save billions per year in avoided health care costs. Still, Big Oil doesn’t want to comply and is prioritizing their profits over public health and welfare.

Meanwhile, the benefits of cleaner gasoline and car tailpipes have built a groundswell of support for the new standards. According to a recent poll released by the American Lung Association, a 2-to-1 majority of surveyed Americans support stricter EPA standards.

Along with health advocates and environmentalists, the standards are also supported by labor organizations and emissions equipment businesses. Even automakers, which are subject to new tailpipe requirements under the proposal, favor these so-called “Tier 3” rules.

The EPA proposal announced today tightens standards beyond the current Tier 2 requirements. Under Tier 2 refineries reduced average sulfur levels nearly 10-fold down to 30 ppm. The Tier 3 requirement makes a needed adjustment down to 10 ppm. Reducing sulfur in gasoline will immediately cut pollution from the current fleet of on-road cars because exhaust catalysts will more effectively reduce emissions equivalent to removing 33 million of today’s automobiles from the road, according to a study for the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA).

Lower sulfur will also lead to dramatically cleaner new vehicles. With cleaner gasoline automakers can further optimize new vehicle combustion and exhaust systems to cut average smog pollutants by 80 percent from Tier 2 levels. If the EPA rules are finalized by the end of 2013, the first vehicles subject to the tighter standards will start arriving in 2016, as part of model year 2017. EPA estimates that the cleaner vehicle technologies (such as improved exhaust catalysts) could add about $130 to cost of a new vehicle, or for a $20,000 car, less than 1 percent. 

The minimal costs of cleaner gasoline and vehicles are far outweighed by health benefits for Americans. Cleaner gasoline and air will result in fewer respiratory ailments, fewer asthma attacks, fewer lost work days and fewer premature deaths. EPA estimates that the Tier 3 standards will save Americans up to $23 billion each year in health costs by 2030. EPA estimates that cleaner gasoline and vehicle costs could total $3.4 billion in 2030. Comparing the benefits and costs of the Tier 3 program shows us that the potential public health benefits outweigh the costs by a factor of 7

We can’t pass up these important health benefits. We need clean air now. According to the American Lung Association more than 40 percent of Americans live in areas with unhealthful levels of air pollution.

Stronger EPA standards on gasoline are long overdue and the oil industry should not be allowed to obstruct needed public health protections. Big Oil’s opposition is especially alarming when the wealthy oil industry takes home $8 billion in subsidies from American taxpayers each year. 

The Tier 3 gasoline and vehicle standards will save lives, save money and clear our air. EPA should forge ahead, collect public comments—the next phase of the regulatory process—and finalize the Tier 3 standards by the end of this year.

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Michael BerndtsonMar 29 2013 03:21 PM

For some reason I feel this issue is tied to the tar sands bitumen from Canada and the Keystone XL pipeline. Sulfur in crude oil or tar sands has to be removed somewhere along the processing line. Bitumen from Alberta has around 3 to 7 percent sulfur. Compared to less than 1 percent for sweet crude from conventional sources. Canadian companies probably want to limit processing of tar sands up in the cold of northern Alberta as much as possible - forcing hydrotreating and fluid coking to be done in the US. Or China maybe? Is there a deal being done between the Obama administration and O&G, i.e. approving Keystone XL? Elemental sulfur has commercial and industrial uses. However, sulfur oxides are still produced somewhere along the line, whether out a stack or a tail pipe. Either way, its a small world with almost perfect atmospheric mixing so NIMBY is kind of pointless.

James Singmaster, III, Ph.D.Mar 30 2013 12:19 AM

The basic ununderstood action for saving the future for our kids is the action to MAKE THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE. It seems no one at NRDC is aware that we are entering the HYDROGEN AGE of clean fuel gotten from sun and a catalyst splitting water to get hydogen. Hydrogen powered vehicles are already on the road including one or more buses in Alameda county, CA.
So What IS NRDC doing to get attention to this development?
Calling on EPA for standards on emissions from gas powered vehicles is wasting NRDC's time and money. NRDC needs to shake itself up to the latest science and get calling for EPA to put its attention to encourage the oncoming HYDROGEN AGE.
With hydrogen as the fuel of the future our descendants won't have to face the messes of nuclear poweer plant meltdowns,, of soot(A now being recognized as a major causer aof GW/CC0,) of GHG emissions(mainly CO2) etc. ,etc.. Dr. J. Singmaster

Luke TonachelApr 1 2013 10:53 AM

Mr. Berndtson and Dr. Singmaster:
Thanks for the comments. As you may be aware, EPA’s most recent sulfur and tailpipe standards are not a new idea; they were requested by President Obama nearly three years ago, on May 21, 2010 (see The 2010 announcement specified a suite of performance standards that require vehicles and fuels to reduce pollution and increase efficiency without specifying what technologies needed to be deployed.

Going forward, we will need to continue to tighten standards to reach long-term objectives to cut carbon pollution by at least 80% from 2005 levels while continuing to reduce smog, air toxics and other pollution. California and other states adopting California’s vehicle pollution standards understand the need for advanced technology to meet our ultimate clean-air goals and therefore established the Zero Emission Vehicle program and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. NRDC supports these programs—which are complementary to greenhouse gas and efficiency programs—because they set the pace for on-going advancements in a range of clean vehicle and fuel technologies (including electric-drive from batteries and hydrogen fuel cells). We look forward to continuing clean transportation innovations that can be brought to market.

Michael BerndtsonApr 2 2013 07:48 AM

Thanks Luke. Obama and EPA's push for auto efficiency will do much more for reduction of NOx and SOx then "tweaking with the input mix." A don't disagree with the sentiment - it's just that all good deeds never go unpunished - in the EPA v. O&G contest - i.e., ethanol and MTBE for more complete combustion.

Nitrogen products of combustion are always going to be an issue as long as 80 percent of our atmosphere is composed of it. Sulfur products simply exist due to biological degradation, chiefly under anaerobic conditions, of organic matter. Getting rid of sulfur is not easy and expensive at any step along the production and refining process. Ideally it could be removed and collected as elemental sulfur and used as a value added products - and gasoline and diesel would be sulfur free.

Here's my gut feeling based on nothing but a hunch. Alberta tar sands is so high in sulfur that Canada doesn't want to refine it out. The acid rain potential from SOx would just tick off every province east of Alberta. And the US doesn't really want to upgrade for that much de-sulfurization either. So sending it to China un-refined with 3 to 7 percent sulfur content may be the goal. China can use sulfur for building products and fertilizers manufacturing. Then sell all the value added products back to the US. Who knows, maybe there's deals being done to refine tar sands south of the border - saving on shipping costs.

It's a tangled web we weave. Plus, if the past is prologue this latest effort of tweaking with the gasoline mix will result in something unforeseen by environmentalists.

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