Plan to cut sulfur in gasoline on track for March

Federal regulators have sent a plan to slash smog-forming sulfur emissions from gasoline to the White House for review, putting the government on track to formally unveil the proposal later this year.

At issue are the so-called Tier 3 fuel standards, which would require refiners to cut sulfur emissions from gasoline to 10 parts per million, down from a current threshold of 30 parts per million.

The Environmental Protection Agency sent its draft proposal to the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday, queuing up an interagency review process that could span three months. Previously, the EPA said it expected to formally propose the Tier 3 standards by the end of March, though the mandates have been delayed for more than a year already.

The EPA casts the change as an important step for advancing air quality and public health, because the tighter sulfur mandate would spur “significant reductions in pollutants such as ozone, particulate matter and air toxics across the country.” Some state and local governments have argued in favor of the mandates, which could make it easier for their regions to attain National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

Automakers say tighter sulfur emission standards would unlock the construction and use of cleaner combustion engines, giving them new avenues for meeting other environmental mandates. The change would allow catalytic converters to work more effectively, ultimately causing cars to emit fewer smog-forming compounds.

But refiners say the cost would be borne by refiners, in the form of squeezed profit margins, and motorists, who could pay more at the pump for the lower-emission gasoline. Estimates range from an extra 9 cents per gallon, according to an industry-backed study, to the EPA’s prediction of just one penny more per gallon.

Although the proposed rule is under wraps now, it is not expected to an additional vapor pressure reduction requirement that could hike costs further. EPA officials have said they have no plans to include that requirement.

Still, if vapor pressure reductions are embedded in the final mandate, extra costs could reach as high as 25 cents per gallon, said American Petroleum Institute Downstream Director Bob Greco.

“Pump prices are still high, and this is clearly not the time to add burdensome and unnecessary regulations on gasoline, especially when there are no proven environmental benefits and current regulations are working,” Greco said in a statement on Wednesday.

Industry lobbyists argue that the mandate actually could do more harm than good, because the hydrotreaters used to strip sulfur from gasoline require a lot of energy (and consequently, have a high carbon footprint).

“Implementing the new requirements would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions because of the energy-intensive equipment required to comply,” Greco said.