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When will EPA release its new car pollution proposal?

Rich Kassel

Posted January 12, 2012

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This is a post about an EPA proposal that hasn’t been proposed.  It’s a post about a proposal that environmentalists, state air regulators, and industry stakeholders have been waiting a year and a half to see.  And, it’s a post about an important issue that has not received much attention, so it may be news to you.

Here goes:

On May 21, 2010, I joined my colleagues at EPA, in the health and environmental communities, and in the vehicle emissions industries in the White House Rose Garden to hear President Obama announce a three-part plan to reduce pollution from our nation’s vehicles.

First, the President directed the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to create the first-ever fuel economy and greenhouse gas requirements for our nation’s trucks.

Second, the President directed these two agencies to collaborate on the next round of fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for cars, light trucks, and sport-utility vehicles, which would cover these so-called “light-duty vehicles” for model years 2017- 2025.

Third, the President directed EPA to create a new set of emissions standards to reduce tailpipe pollution from these light-duty vehicles—pollution that leads to more summertime smog and soot.  These standards would update the so-called "Tier 2" standards that EPA set way back in 1999 - so they quickly became known, in the world of jargon, as the "Tier 3" standards.

Today, the truck rule is complete, and the fuel economy proposal for light-duty vehicles is moving through the regulatory process. Together, these are the biggest steps on fuel economy ever taken. Collectively, they will save consumers and businesses money and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to global warming. The President, EPA, and DOT all deserve our thanks for their leadership and action on these issues.

But the Tier 3 proposal to reduce the vehicle emissions that contribute to asthma, cancer, heart attacks and premature deaths has not been released yet.

The need for the new Tier 3 standards is clear:  Despite continued progress over the past forty years, more than one-third of all Americans still live in communities where the air pollution levels exceed EPA’s health-based standards for smog and soot.  Cleaner cars are the one of the most cost-effective ways to help states deliver cleaner air to their communities.

Over the past year, there have been many reports that EPA’s work is almost done.  The word on the street is that EPA will harmonize its Tier 3 standards with the new vehicle pollution standards about to be finalized in California, so automakers can make the same car in all fifty states. 

That means that sulfur levels in gasoline will be reduced from today’s levels (a cap of 80 parts-per-million, and an average of 30 ppm) to a cap of 10 ppm.  With lower sulfur fuels, cleaner tailpipe standards that reduce smog-forming gases (nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon) and soot (particulate matter) could be introduced at minimal cost to consumers—costs that will be dwarfed by the resulting health benefits.

But the rule hasn’t been proposed. 

And the regulatory process takes time.

EPA has to send its proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. Then, OMB has up to 90 days to review it. Then, EPA has to formally propose the new rules, hold hearings, review and respond to public comments, and then, it gets to finalize the rule.

And then, the Clean Air Act, reasonably enough, gives auto makers four years of advance time to get ready for major new rules like Tier 3.

So, there are a lot of steps and the process takes time, but the math is actually simple: the sooner EPA proposes its Tier 3 rule, the sooner Americans will get cleaner cars and cleaner air.

Tomorrow, I will post again on the specific components that we hope to see in the proposal, as well as provide additional information on expected costs and benefits. NRDC looks forward to working closely with EPA and the Obama administration, as well as all stakeholders, towards the best possible rule.

For today, though, the message is simple:  it’s time to get the EPA proposal out the door, and start the regulatory process.

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