On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency finally proposed a new set of regulations — known as Tier 3 Vehicle Standards. The rules would reduce the amount of sulfur present in gasoline before our cars burn it. It brings the rest of the country in line with the environmental standards that have regulated California’s automobile industry for years.
Cutting back on the use of sulfur in gasoline by two thirds will have indirect environmental and public health benefits. While sulfur dioxide is not itself a greenhouse gas, reducing the amount of sulfur in gasoline will increase the efficiency of catalytic converters, reducing emissions and gasoline consumption. (Video explanation of how catalytic converters pull pollutants out of engine exhaust before it hits the air.)
When catalytic converters aren’t doing their jobs well, then they are emitting more pollutants like smog, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide. As the EPA puts it:
“The proposed gasoline sulfur standard would make emission control systems more effective for both existing and new vehicles, and would enable more stringent vehicle emissions standards. Removing sulfur allows the vehicle’s catalyst to work more efficiently. Lower sulfur gasoline also facilitates the development of some lower-cost technologies to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which reduces gasoline consumption and saves consumers money.”
The proposed Tier 3 regulations go into effect in 2017, at the same time the auto-industry will have to be in compliance with the EPA’s newer, higher emissions standards.
Health advocates immediately applauded the new regulations as well. The American Lung Association issued a release applauding the health benefits of reducing the amount of smog-causing pollutants released by car emissions. These rules are expected to achieve the same environmental impact as removing some 33 million cars from the road.
The Obama administration also had a key ally in their push for stricter regulations: car manufacturers. For years, automakers had to navigate the disparity between California’s tougher requirements and the more relaxed federal laws, leading to costly changes in the way companies like Ford and General Motors built their cars that would be sold in the nation’s largest state.
It is also a significant victory given the strength of the opposition. Predictably, the oil and gas industry had their well-funded lobbyists urging the White House to at least delay the new standards, touting cost estimates that the industry warned would be passed down to the consumer at the pump. The EPA estimates that the new regulations will cost less than a penny per gallon, and add approximately $150 to the total price of a new car, or less than half of one percent of the average cost of a new vehicle.
The American Petroleum Institute also said that refiners would emit more carbon pollution in getting sulfur out of gasoline. The bottom line is that the EPA says methane and nitrogen oxide benefits from implementing the new rule outweigh any increases in refinery emissions. In fact, within a few decades the net greenhouse gas benefit will be a reduction equivalent to about two coal power plants.