Senate Democrats push EPA to move quickly on sulfur in gasoline

More than a dozen Senate Democrats on Thursday urged the Obama administration to slash the amount of smog-forming sulfur emissions from gasoline over the objections of the oil industry and many congressional Republicans.

The so-called Tier 3 emissions standards _ which would force refiners to slash sulfur emissions from 30 parts per million to 10 parts per million _ have been stalled at the Environmental Protection Agency.

But in a letter to President Barack Obama, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and 12 colleagues ask for the emissions standards to be moved off the back burner and “promptly” adopted.

“Tier 3 will substantially reduce harmful pollutants that are responsible for health-related ailments such as heart attacks, premature death, asthma attacks and other chronic lung diseases,” the senators told the president. At the same time, the standards “will also result in significant economic benefits.”

Senators signing the letter included Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Richard Blumenthal, D-Ct., and Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who caucuses with Democrats.

Reducing the sulfur content of gasoline allows catalytic converters to work more effectively, ultimately causing cars to emit fewer smog-forming emissions. For automakers, the change would allow the construction and use of cleaner combustion engines — giving them new ways to meet other environmental mandates.

But oil refiners say they would bear the brunt of such a change — with some of the extra costs passed on to consumers.

It is unclear exactly how much the change would cost, given dueling economic assessments by the EPA, American Petroleum Institute and the manufacturers of emission control systems.

An API-commissioned study said refiners would see manufacturing costs rise by up to 9 cents per gallon. But EPA officials have testified that the actual cost increase could be just a penny per gallon.

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said the new Senate push could propel action at the EPA, which has not formally proposed the emission standards _ the first step toward imposing them.

“This letter will help propel the standards out of the dark recesses of EPA and into the light of day,” O’Donnell said. “There is a dire need for these standards, and the senators have made a compelling case for prompt action.”

O’Donnell said he anticipated the EPA could advance an official proposal early next year.

Like the Senate supporters, advocates of the emissions standards say the short term increase in gasoline prices would be outweighed by cuts in health care costs tied to a reduction in respiratory illnesses. A Navigant Economics analysis estimates health savings of $5.2 billion to $5.9 billion annually by 2020.

Advocates also insist that cutting sulfur emissions _ instantly curbing pollution from cars on the road _ is the most effective smog-cutting tool available. A National Association of Clean Air Agencies study said a 10 parts per million standard would immediately axe 260,000 nitrogen oxide emissions.

“We know of no other single strategy for (nitrogen oxide) that will achieve as significant, timely and cost-effective emissions reductions,” the senators said.

API officials have questioned the extent of air quality benefits from the EPA proposal and said the new requirements could actually boost greenhouse gas emissions from refineries that would need to install new energy-intensive equipment to strip out sulfur.

The prime way for stripping sulfur from gasoline is to install hydrotreaters, which refiners say can significantly boost greenhouse gas emissions at their facilities because the equipment is so energy intensive.