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Luke Tonachel’s Blog

Get the Sulfur Out: Cleaner Gasoline Saves Lives

Luke Tonachel

Posted September 3, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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Air pollution shortens lives. According to recent study by researchers at MIT there were about 200,000 premature deaths in 2005 linked to combustion emissions leading to ozone and particulate matter pollution. The biggest single contributor to those deaths is the transportation sector, namely on-road vehicle exhaust. The EPA is on the case, though, with proposed tougher standards to clean up gasoline and make car tailpipes less polluting. The EPA should waste no time in getting these standards adopted.

EPA should finalize their “Tier 3” standards for gasoline and car tailpipes by December 2013. Adoption of the rules this year will give the auto and oil refining industry sufficient certainty and lead-time to invest in technologies needed for cleaner gasoline and cars by 2017. Conversely, due to automaker product introduction cycles, delaying past December 2013 would shift compliance to 2018 or later and unnecessarily expose Americans to health risks and potentially billions of dollars in health costs.

The need to clean up our air is urgent. According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air, over 131 million Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution. These counties are failing to meet one or more National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) due in large part to automobile emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compound (VOC) and fine particulates (PM2.5). In many non-attainment areas, EPA estimates that by 2014 cars and light trucks will contribute up to 45 percent of total NOX, 25 percent of total VOC emissions, and 10 percent of total direct particulate matter (PM2.5).

Noting the impact of cars, it’s understandable that the MIT researchers estimate that about 53,000 of the 200,000 premature deaths in 2005 were due to on-road emissions. Fortunately, current EPA “Tier 2” gasoline and car standards have been helping to cut pollution since 2005 but the job of cleaning the air is not done.

Our air will get cleaner as soon as gasoline is cleaner. EPA’s proposed Tier 3 standards require gasoline sulfur to average no more than 10 parts-per-million (ppm), a reduction of two-thirds from the current level of 30 ppm.

Removing sulfur from gasoline immediately makes older vehicles on the road run cleaner because their exhaust catalysts have less sulfur build-up and become more effective. In 2017, 10 ppm gasoline will reduce ozone-forming NOx from the on-road fleet by 280,000 tons, which is equivalent to taking over 33 million of today’s cars off the road.

Lower sulfur, 10 ppm gasoline will also facilitate tighter standards for new vehicles built in 2017 and later by enabling automakers to design cleaner engine and exhaust systems optimized for cleaner gasoline. Compared to current Tier 2 standards, the proposed Tier 3 standards will cut average new automobile NOx and organic compound emissions by 80 percent and per-vehicle PM emissions by 70 percent.

Lower emissions will lead to significant health benefits at a very modest cost. Cleaner car technology will cost about $50 per vehicle in 2017 and $134 in 2025. Cleaner gasoline it will cost oil refiners a penny or less per gallon on average. In return, the U.S. would benefit from $8 to $23 billion annually in avoided health care costs.

By 2030, the EPA estimates that the Tier 3 standards will annually prevent:

  • Between 820 and 2,400 premature deaths
  • 3,200 hospital admissions and asthma-related emergency room visits
  • 22,000 asthma exacerbations
  • 23,000 upper and lower respiratory symptoms in children
  • 1.8 million lost school days, work days and minor-restricted activities

As a result of the clear benefits, it is not surprising that there is broad support for EPA to adopt Tier 3 standards. Surveyed citizens strongly support tighter standards and, like many stakeholders, automakers have urged the agency to move forward with Tier 3. Only the oil industry has tried obstructing the standards by raising misleading cost claims and using slippery accounting.  

Despite the oil industry’s delay tactics, EPA must protect public health. Under commonsense, cost-effective Tier 3 standards, cleaner gasoline will cut pollution and save lives. There’s no justification for delay. Join me in urging EPA to finalize the Tier 3 rules by the end of the year.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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