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Luke Tonachel’s Blog

Obama Administration Should Move Forward with Standards to Clean Up Gasoline and Cut Smog from Cars

Luke Tonachel

Posted November 29, 2012 in Curbing Pollution

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Reducing smog pollution from automobiles is critical for ensuring Americans breathe clean air. The U.S. EPA has the tools, in the form of tighter tailpipe and gasoline standards, for cleaning the air and the agency should use them.

That is the message in a letter to President Obama sent today by thirteen Senators. Led by Senator Gillibrand, Senators Blumenthal, Brown, Cardin, Durbin, Lautenberg, Kerry, Lieberman, Menendez, Merkley, Murray, Schumer, and Whitehouse are urging the President to adopt so-called Tier 3 standards authorized by the Clean Air Act.

Tier 3 standards set tighter tailpipe controls on new automobiles and require oil refiners to produce gasoline at lower sulfur levels. It is expected that the standards would lower sulfur from today’s 30 ppm to about 10 ppm. As a result, lower sulfur gasoline will cut pollution in two ways:

First, cars on the road today will pollute less because exhaust systems will be more effective at reducing nitrogen oxides (NOx). A study by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA), which represents state air regulators, finds the pollution reduction from shifting to 10 ppm gasoline would be equivalent to taking 33 million of today’s automobiles off the road.

Second, new cars, starting about 2017, will be fitted with new emissions control equipment designed to operate with 10 ppm gasoline. The State of California, which has low-sulfur gasoline today, already requires future cars to meet tighter tailpipe standards. If new federal Tier 3 standards are aligned with California standards, new car emissions of nitrogen oxides and other smog-forming emissions could be cut by 65 percent and particulate matter could drop by 70 percent compared today’s federal Tier 2 requirements on cars.

The health implications of cleaner cars and lower sulfur gasoline are very significant. According to NACAA, new standards could avoid the loss of 52,000 workdays and 400 premature deaths each year. A recent analysis by Navigant calculates the annual health benefits of potential Tier 3 standards to be over $5 billion in 2020 and $10 billion in 2030.

Navigant also found that Tier 3 standards will create jobs. Modifying refineries to produce 10-ppm sulfur gasoline could add over 24,000 construction jobs in three years and over 5,000 long-term plant operation jobs.

The benefits of Tier 3 rules far outweigh the costs. The EPA estimates costs at about a penny a gallon, far below oil industry estimates of 6 to 9 cents per gallon. For consumers, the change may not even show up at the pump. Navigant found that the previous Tier 2 regulations, which dropped sulfur from 300 ppm to 30 ppm, “had no material impact on the retail price of gasoline.”

Senator Gillibrand and her colleagues are right to urge the President into action. The Obama Administration can and should move forward immediately to propose new Tier 3 cleaner gasoline and car standards. As the state air regulators convened by NACAA point out, “[m]ore than 125 million people still live in areas that exceed at least one of the health-based National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), with 120 million of these residing where ozone (also known as smog) levels exceed that federal standard.”

Cost-effective standards that clean up tailpipes and gasoline will make the air we breathe cleaner and create jobs. That’s a win-win opportunity and we should grab it.

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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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