A Comprehensive Guide to the EPA’s New Pollution-Reducing Gasoline Rules

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This post first appeared at ThinkProgress.

(AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday finalized major new regulations that it says will create a cleaner environment, improve public health and help flight climate change — all by requiring oil refiners to put less sulfur in American gasoline.

While the concept seems simple enough on its face, the 1,000-plus page doozy-of-a-rule was adopted despite harsh objections from the oil industry, which said the new standards would cost too much to implement and do little to help the environment. But public health, environmental and even auto industry groups disagreed. The rules, they said, help create a cleaner vehicle fleet that will eventually add billions to the US economy.

Here’s a brief overview of the new standards — what they do, how much they will cost and the benefits EPA purports they will bring.

Why do we care whether there’s sulfur in gasoline?

Sulfur — that notoriously stinky, rotten-egg like element — is a normal part of gasoline’s chemical makeup. When cars burn gasoline, they emit sulfur, along with a host of other pollutants. Sulfur is not a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, but it is an environmental pollutant. When it’s emitted from cars, it comes back to earth in rainwater.

But sulfur pollution itself is not the real problem. Peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that the sulfur in gasoline actually makes the pollution-reduction systems in cars — called catalytic converters — significantly less efficient. More sulfur in gasoline means less effective pollution control. Therefore, when there’s more sulfur, there’s more pollution of every kind, including greenhouse gases and soot.

How much sulfur does the EPA want to be allowed in gasoline?

Under our current, “Tier 2″ standards finalized in 2000, gasoline is allowed to have an average of 30 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur. When the new, ‘”Tier 3” rules are implemented in 2017, oil companies will have to reduce that average down to 10 ppm. It is a two-thirds reduction.

Do the rules do anything else?

Yes. The new rules also include cleaner standards for tailpipe and evaporative emissions, which will be phased in between 2017 and 2025.

What will these rules do?

Put simply, the EPA says this will result in “dramatic” emissions reductions for smog-forming and cancer-causing pollutants.

Put less simply, cars running under the new standards will, by 2025, emit 80 percent less nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) compared to today’s vehicles. These substances are some of the principle ingredients of smog. Particulate matter 2.5, or soot, pollution from cars will drop by 70 percent, according to EPA.

What do those numbers mean in real life?

According to EPA, these numbers are the equivalent to between $6.7 billion and $19 billion annually in economic benefits by 2030 by saving lives and preventing missed work and school days due to illness. The pollution reductions will prevent between 770 and 2,000 premature deaths, 2,200 hospital admissions and asthma-related emergency room visits, 19,000 asthma attacks, 30,000 cases of respiratory symptoms in children and 1.4 million lost school and work days, according to the EPA.

The reduction in air pollution will also mean so-called “welfare” benefits — meaning better visibility, improved ecological effects, vegetation effects from less ozone exposure and climate effects.

Lets talk about those climate effects more. Will these standards do anything to combat climate change?

A little.

The standards themselves are meant more for a general reduction of pollution that causes public health problems — asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, etc. — than for climate change-causing greenhouse gases. But the EPA estimates that reductions in nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions and methane (CH4) emissions, both potent greenhouse gas emissions, are projected for gasoline cars and trucks as a result of the standards. The EPA expects a reduction of 2.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) by 2018, increasing to between 3.8 to 4.0 million MTCO2e in 2030.

However, the process of removing sulfur from gasoline takes energy and that energy use will offset some of the greenhouse gas reductions. With that in mind, the EPA still estimates an overall reduction of 2.5 to 2.7 million MTCO2e by 2030 — about the equivalent of two coal-fired power plants.

In addition, the rules run along a similar timeframe as the EPA’s fuel economy and greenhouse gas rules, which require automakers to make their cars emit significantly less climate change-causing gases by 2025. According to The Association of Global Automakers, the rules requiring ultra-low sulfur gasoline is “critical” for automobile manufacturer efforts to meet those standards.

What does this mean for the oil industry? How much will this cost me at the pump?

The oil industry is not happy about this.

When the proposed rules were released last year, the American Petroleum Institute’s downstream group Director Bob Greco said the rules would raise refiners’ costs, provide “little or no environmental benefit,” and increase carbon emissions via the increased energy it takes to take sulfur out of gas (As mentioned above, the EPA does take that into consideration — but still estimates net reductions in carbon).

While EPA officials estimate that the new regulation will up the price of gasoline by about two-thirds of one cent per gallon and add about $75 to the sticker price of cars, the API says that it will cost their industry $10 billion and raise gasoline costs by up to 9 cents per gallon.

Can I read the rule?

Yes. It is here.

Emily Atkin is a reporter for Climate Progress. She is a native of New York’s Hudson Valley, and holds a B.A. in Journalism from the State University of New York at New Paltz. Before joining the team at American Progress, she worked as a news-gatherer and reporter covering litigation and policy for the legal newswire Law360. Emily has also held internships with the New York Observer, the Legislative Gazette and investigative reporter Wayne Barrett.
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