"Cleaner cars need cleaner fuels"--that's the message from a group of automakers in support of new EPA rules to clean up gasoline.

The Environmental Protection Agency will today move ahead with rules requiring cleaner gasoline nationwide, with huge potential environmental benefits.

According to a senior Obama administration official (via The Washington Post), the move to reduce the sulfur content of gasoline would deliver the same environmental benefit as taking 33 million cars off the road.

The aim is to reduce the sulfur content of gasoline by two thirds, following existing reductions which have dropped sulfur content to a tenth of what it was in 2004.

Oil industry officials are worried though, saying the changes could cost twice the administration's estimates, potentially adding 9 cents to the price of a gallon in some areas. They estimate it may cost up to $10 billion to upgrade refineries and another $2.4 billion in operating costs--at a time when other regulations are also tightening the industry's belts.

According to Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petroleum Manufacturers, cutting sulfur further becomes increasingly difficult--arguing a law of diminishing returns is in effect. He says the EPA is not obligated, under the clean air act, to reduce the sulfur content of gasoline any further.

The EPA's research suggests that, of 111 refineries surveyed, 29 can already meet or approach the required sulfur standard, 66 would require modest modifications and 16 would require a "major overhaul".

The cost of upgrading refineries would be more than offset by the potential health benefits--an estimated $23 billion per year by 2030.

Gasoline sulfur on its own doesn't pose a public health threat, but increased quantities can affect the effectiveness of catalytic converters. This leads to greater tailpipe emissions of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and fine particles--variously responsible for smog, heart disease and respiratory problems.

Nitrogen oxides could be cut by as much as 80 percent, and soot by a full 70 percent, according to the administration official.

It's a plan that automakers themselves are already on-board with, looking for a consistent emissions standard across the whole country to reduce their costs. Many already build cars to comply with California's tough emissions regulations, and other regulations in Europe and elsewhere.

A low-sulfur standard would allow them to standardize emissions across a greater area, without having to account for different types of gasoline.

Others are less keen--60 congressional Republicans have objected to the proposal, while sixteen Democrats in the House and five in the Senate have appealed to delay the proposal for a year.

But for those in favor, the new rules could clean up millions of vehicles almost overnight--and reduce cases of asthma, heart, and lung disease--as well as reducing missed work days from those ailments and more.


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