Reducing sulfur: The EPA acts to clean gasoline -- and the air

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When Congress won't deal with the president on cleaning the air, the administration must act on its own.

That's what the Environmental Protection Agency did last Friday in announcing a new rule that will reduce sulfur in gasoline and toughen vehicle emission standards. The agency said the change could mean an increase in gasoline prices of less than a penny beginning in 2017 and add $130 to the cost of a car in 2025.

But the modest cost will be worth it by saving billions of dollars in health care bills due to reduced smog and soot pollution.

The change will be made to the EPA's Tier 3 standards and will cut sulfur levels in gasoline by more than 60 percent and reduce nitrogen oxides by 80 percent. Even though gasoline sulfur is not a public health threat, it can prevent a vehicle's catalytic converter from doing its job, thereby leading to greater tailpipe pollution. That, in turn, would make it more difficult for states to meet clean-air standards.

Although environmental advocates and even automakers had called for the rule, the oil and gasoline industries were opposed, saying the cost to consumers would be higher than EPA estimates. Industry representatives said it would cost up to $10 billion to overhaul refineries to meet the new fuel standard and an extra $2.4 billion a year in operating costs.

But the EPA surveyed 111 refineries and learned that 29 can already meet the standard, 66 can reach it with modest upgrades and only 16 would need major changes done on site. The four years of notice before the rule takes effect will give refineries adequate time to complete the necessary overhauls.

Public health advocates say the change is likely to be the most significant air quality improvement of President Barack Obama's second term. And if it has to be imposed by the EPA instead of legislated with an obstinate Congress, then so be it.

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