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Over Oil Industry Objections, EPA Sets Lifesaving New Standards for Gasoline and Tailpipe Pollution

Peter Lehner

Posted March 3, 2014

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When I worked for the City of New York, I often asked people what they felt was the worst environmental problem. Many said tailpipe pollution. Emissions from the tailpipes of cars and trucks seemed particularly insulting because – as we all walked our kids to school – the tailpipes seemed to be spewing black smoke just at the level of our kids’ heads. 

Our cars and trucks have become a lot cleaner since then, but exhaust from vehicle tailpipes is still a major source of air pollution, responsible for up to 45 percent of soot and smog-forming pollution in many areas of the country. Air pollution still sends thousands of kids and adults to the emergency room every year with asthma attacks or breathing difficulty, and keeps hundreds of thousands more home from school or work; it can even shorten the lives of people with heart or lung trouble. The latest set of tailpipe and clean gasoline standards announced today by the EPA will help reduce smog and soot and clear the air for millions of Americans, saving thousands of lives and up to $19 billion in health costs each year.


Tailpipe exhaust from an older car (, via Flickr)

The EPA’s new standards will reduce the amount of sulfur in gasoline by two-thirds. This will have an immediate impact on air quality. Sulfur, in addition to being a source of air pollution, builds up in your car’s exhaust system and makes emissions control less effective. When every gas-powered car on the road fills up with cleaner, lower-sulfur gasoline, they’ll all start running cleaner—even older vehicles. Smog-forming pollution is expected drop by 260,000 tons by 2018, a year after the new standards take effect--that’s the equivalent of replacing roughly 30 million of today’s cars with zero-emission vehicles.

With less sulfur in the fuel tank to gum up the works, automakers can move ahead with cleaner engines and exhaust systems optimized for cleaner gasoline. Vehicles built in 2017 and beyond will produce 80 percent less smog-forming pollution, and 70 percent less particle pollution, or soot, than cars built under today’s tailpipe standards. Soot is a particularly harmful type of air pollution, because very tiny particles can lodge deep in the lungs or even enter the bloodstream. It’s been linked to premature death, heart attacks, aggravated asthma and other heart and lung problems.

The American public has expressed strong support for the new standards, which will prevent, according to EPA estimates, as many as 2,000 premature deaths each year, as well as thousands of hospital visits and 1.4 million days of missed work, school absences, or activity restrictions. By 2030, these standards will save Americans anywhere from $6.7 billion to $19 billion in health costs each year. The additional cost for cleaner gasoline will be less than a penny a gallon.

Automakers, eager to move forward with more clean car technologies, support the new standards as well. The oil industry, however, has been a major roadblock against getting these standards through, protesting that meeting them would be prohibitively expensive. But analysis from the EPA, and even some oil industry analysts, showed their numbers didn’t add up.

The oil industry voiced similar concerns about earlier sulfur reductions, which were achieved successfully, as well objecting to the removal of lead from gasoline, which NRDC began advocating for in the 1970s. Lead standards, which NRDC helped push through in the United States and then worked to expand globally, have effectively gotten rid of lead in gasoline around the world, resulting in a remarkable 90 percent drop in blood lead levels globally, and an estimated $2.4 trillion in annual health, societal and economic benefits. This is truly amazing public health victory, achieved at a fraction of the cost the industry claimed.

Like removing lead from gasoline, reducing sulfur and tailpipe emissions is an important win for clean air and public health. Clearing the air of lung-damaging pollution will save thousands of lives. It means fewer trips to the emergency room with an acute asthma attack or irregular heartbeat; fewer days when asthmatic kids can’t go outside and play. These are cost-effective, health-protective standards that will produce real benefits for millions of Americans who can look forward to breathing cleaner air.

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M RoseMar 5 2014 11:35 AM

Great news - maybe you can answer the following, related question: Moving to the US recently, one thing strikes me as really absurd regarding tailpipe pollution: Isn’t there a time limit as to how long you're allowed to let the car engine run while holding still? People wait in their cars for street cleaning for hours - letting the engine run. eating lunch in their cars - letting the engine run. Having chauffeurs waiting in the cars - with the engine running (Maybe the last one is a NYC phenomenon, but still:). Is it really legal? To an outsider it seems so absurd. Imagine the improvement in air quality if a two-minute limit was the max – as is the case elsewhere in the world.

Paul WhitcombMar 5 2014 12:05 PM

Four years for the new regulations to be put in place? Wow. That's a long time. Time enough for oil industry lobbyists to water it down or ineffectuate it completely.
Also, some typos in the article. Talk to me if you want a new editor.

Dan BoodyMar 5 2014 12:10 PM

WOW...... The oil industry actually loses one. Many praises for those grass roots objectors politically involved to make this standard a reality. The Power of the People can and does work....... It is a dam shame though for all of those people that have suffered over the years. Whether it be asbestos, lead and sulfur, the Corporate Two-Legged Gorilla Pigs at the Trough just won't back-off on doing whatever it takes to increase profit & control..... People & animals just don't matter in many of their visions......

vicki johnsonMar 5 2014 12:15 PM

This is a joke, right? This is the pitiful effort they give us? This is what we are to accept in lieu of REAL solutions?
We have the technology and they have already become disgustingly rich on the backs of our health. It is beyond high time for them to manufacture transportation that doesn't pollute, either in use of it or the actual manufacture OF it.
We are the reason they get away with this kind of meager effort...

William JohnsonMar 5 2014 12:26 PM

Why not frame this the way it is instead of the way the big energy firms want it framed? The argument should be why it isn't mandated that a certain percentage of cars be electric like the law California enacted years ago that produced a great electric car. If your unaware of this story, perhaps you should be aware of it so you can do what you profess to do more effectively. Of all news organizations, 60 Minutes did a great expose' of how big energy concerns was able to pressure CA. law makers into rescinding their clean energy law for vehicles, so please don't tell us you don't know about it. But if that is the case, please let me know and I'll explain it to you. If your actually concerned about air quality, you should be asking the government why a similar law isn't being written? A car that could travel 180 miles on a single charge has already been built, although after that law was rescinded those cars were taken from their owners because they were not allowed to purchase them, only lease them and those folks want their cars back, So we know it's possible to replace 95% of current cars with electric ones and you guys are crowing about pollution standards! HERE is what you need to be doing, not trying to reduce tailpipe emissions, but eliminating them. If that isn't clear to you then you must be working for the opposition.

KathrynMar 5 2014 12:50 PM

Tailpipe carbons reduced will be greatly appreciated, HOWEVER, what would even be more appreciated would be NRDC taking on the GEOENGINEERING scientists spewing toxic chemicals throughout our skies in some vein attempt to manipulate weather which they claim is to help stop global warming, but which is actually not only speeding up global warming but creating yet one more high tech weapon known to those with eyes willing to SEE the truth of "Weather Warfare" with GeoEngineering of our weather in the wrong hands.
Go to This is NO Conspiracy Theory, it is all substantiated by facts, figures and many charts, AND by many in the scientific community who have been warned by the powers that be to shut up. Think about it, what could be so pervasive that it could simultaneous drive so many devastating increases in asthma, cancer, mysterious Bee collapse, raging droughts and fires in the West, catastrophic floods, ocean acidification and dying sealife, wildlife mutations, the list goes on and on...Sure, there are certainly other environmental toxins and culprits like Fukashima radiation as well, but when you look at the skies and continue to witness stranger and stranger un-natural cloud formations and toxic jet streams crisscrossing our heavens something about this does NOT bode well at all for Mother Nature or any living sentient being forced to breathe in and swallow such poison...supposedly all in the name of science ? ? The scientists behind this GeoEngineering nightmare are a perfect example of what NOT to do according to Albert Einstein who clearly stated, "We cannot solve problems from the same level of thinking that created them." But they are and it's because they subscribe to the same mindset that drives the Big Pharma with their toxic Drugs designed to (unconsciously) kill the patient in the futile hope of eliminating disease with their laundry list of sideeffects. Same psychopathic mindset is at work in the mad minds of GeoEngineering Scientists. God help us all, is all I can say if we don't see this madness for what it is...INSANITY!!! NRDC and EarthJustice needs to get a move on in addressing the issue of GEO ENGINEERING! Between this, the issue of Big Oil and Fracking, Navy Sonar annihilating our precious Whales and Dolphins, as well as the systematic destruction of our Rainforests, Mountain Removal, Oceans and Wildlife, this Human experiment we are on doesn't stand a prayer's chance of surviving unless the Sociological madness driving our science is transformed once and for all !!!

Joseph WilliamsMar 5 2014 01:37 PM

well I have seen and heard a lot of changes in mixing fuels an methanol too change the way the particulates enter the Air and its clear to the public that sulfur is what we smell from the vehicle in front of use when we are driving, due to mixing gas whit methanol, Every one knows that Electric cars are a great help in preventing emissions in the Air we breath, but we need something for the older cars and trucks on the road. there are some great retrofits designs for older cars and trucks, these retrofits comes from filters that capture the emission from the tailpipes on any gas powered vehicle and the cost is a lot less than any electric battery ore methanol to build. I believe to capture the exiting sulfur from tailpipes to filters are the only real way to prevent any particulate mater to inter the air we breath, and to cut down of medical bills and all upper Respitory infection, this well save lives on a grand scale.
the C.A.R.B are interested in this filter Design concepts presently, lets all hope that Design will make it into the states law and be made mandatory.
thank you
Mr. Joseph Williams

Norleen GrayMar 5 2014 04:28 PM

This is not good for our country and i cannot believe anyone that loves our beautiful lands would consider such a terrible idea!!

Ernie Thrash Mar 5 2014 05:07 PM

Please do what's right and keep us breathing in this country... We all have messed up the earth enough! So now the start fixing it and that starts by you doing the right thing for us all and the next-generation.

Thank You and Be Blessed

Maskin VanceMar 5 2014 06:26 PM

The less fossil fuel exhaust emitted, into the
air, the better life will be for everyone on

Steve WerdaMar 5 2014 07:48 PM

Stop these MEGA DEATH corporations before they kill our planet earth!!!!

mMar 5 2014 10:26 PM

why does it take 4YEARS to implement this? 1 should be plenty All this political deceit is sickening

Prof. Lindsay LaffordMar 5 2014 11:22 PM

That the exhaust problem is being addressed is good news. That it is going to take so long is bad news. All that leeway permits lethargy; one year would compel more urgent attention--and the oil companies can certainly afford it!
Incidentally, what has happened to our planned retirement of fossil fuels?

Pat SchlichtingMar 6 2014 01:35 AM

How many times have we been stopped behind a truck or other diesel-fueled vehicle and have gotten sick from the fumes??? Why are cars subject to emissions testing, while buses and trucks seem to be exempt.

I think that President Obama's concern for this is positive, but the legislation won't take effect for four years!!!

We could all be dead by then.

James M KozlikMar 6 2014 06:46 AM

Good work.

michael greenMar 6 2014 02:12 PM

Coroporate Profits have become more important than life itself. we have created this false idol (money) and it is killing us. we have become so advanced that we do incredibly stupid things with the advancements . are we fed up yet ???

Jacquie SchmidtMar 7 2014 05:08 PM

FACT: Producing meat to eat contributes to more pollution than driving/idling vehicles.

Denis DavisMar 7 2014 05:22 PM

I fully support efforts to reduce environmental pollution caused by the mining, production, and use of petroleum and gas. For my own use I have always purchased cars with smaller engines and better gas mileage. The lag in forcing the oil industry and car manufacturers has always boggled me. There's no excuse. for this. My 2010 vehicle actually gets less MPG than my 2008!!!
There is a great push for electric to replace gasoline engines in cars. Do you know how much pollution is emitted in producing the electricity that you use when you plug into the system in order to charge your car? Please think about this the next time you want to advocate for electric engine cars. There is air pollution from the coal, wood, and gas used to produce electricity. It may not be coming directly from your car's tailpipe but you are still polluting the air, only it's not in your backyard!

Betty KellyMar 7 2014 08:33 PM

The pain from change is not as great as the pain from not being able to breathe. Bring on clean air Double Time.

myna lee johnstoneMar 8 2014 11:10 AM

yes the pollution is horrid
but worse for me is the NOISE and the constant stress created by living in the midst of vehicles
our habitats got built to serve the automobile
each year the social costs of driving cost govts billions or even trillions
In Canada it is about $200 Bil annually
And what do the auto corporations pay?

Donna SceusaMar 9 2014 01:27 AM

I agree with Joseph Williams. We need to get EPA policy for older vehicles too. Many will be on the road for a long time, even as newer models are purchased. Let's look at the whole picture and make certain requirements of all vehicles. That will go a long way to keeping more people breathing better. I live in New York City, so tailpipe emissions are a daily problem here.

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