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EPA Advances New Proposal for Cleaner Gas Emissions

March 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Obama administration announced a proposal requiring two-thirds less sulfur in gasoline and a reduction in other emissions beginning in 2017. Judy Woodruff and Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post discuss the announcement and why it's getting support from auto manufacturers but opposition from the oil and gas industry.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the EPA’s new regulations requiring cleaner gasoline.

The Obama administration announced the proposed changes today. They would require two-thirds less sulfur in gasoline and a reduction in other emissions beginning in 2017. They also would set tighter pollution limits for new vehicles themselves at the same time.

The EPA says that it would reduce premature deaths and improve public health for a minimal cost. But opponents say it could hit consumers at the pump by adding as much as nine cents a gallon.

Juliet Eilperin broke this story for The Washington Post and she joins me now.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: Thanks so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So why is the Obama administration doing this, putting these proposals out there?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, there are a couple of reasons.

One is the fact that they are requiring vehicles to be cleaner in the years ahead. They have basically reduced greenhouse gas emissions from these vehicles. And so you will see between 2016 and 2025 the vehicles are going to become much more efficient. They’re going to get more miles per gallon.

And so one of the things automakers have been asking for is for cleaner fuel because the sulfur in gasoline really affects the catalytic converter and makes it less efficient, results in more tailpipe emissions. So they actually have an incentive to have cleaner fuel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So I was going to say, it is interesting who is in favor of this, that it is not just the environmental advocates. It’s the car manufacturers.

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

The car manufacturers, who already basically have to comply with these rules in California, which is a huge part of the U.S. market, have asked for uniformity. And so they were actually in the Office of Management of Budget just this month asking for these rules to come through. And so that’s one of the reasons why the Obama administration was comfortable moving ahead with this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, on the other side is the oil and gas industry. And what is the argument they’re making?

JULIET EILPERIN: They’re argument is that oil refineries in the United States, which aren’t quite as profitable as, say, the big oil companies, will take a hit because it will be expensive to reduce the sulfur in their emissions.

They have already reduced it 90 percent since 2004 because of federal regulations. And they’re saying it will both be costly for them to do this, and also in fact it will require more energy, which will increase their carbon output from these refineries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the administration is disputing that. So what is the administration basing their argument on?

JULIET EILPERIN: The administration is saying that this will add less than a penny a gallon to any gallon of gasoline.

And they say that, first of all, the oil industry is inflating their statistics. They have done a survey of refineries and they have looked at what kind of modifications, that only a tiny fraction of the roughly 140 refineries in the country will have to do a major overhaul, and also that they allowed for flexibility in this proposal, so that the smallest refineries and the ones that will take the biggest hit will have, you know, an easier transition to this new regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the industry, again, the oil and gas industry, is pushing back?

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

They’re saying that, you know, on average, it’s at least going to be two cents per gallon and, in some instances, it’s going to be as much as nine cents because they estimate that it will cost $10 billion dollars to do the upgrades that they will need for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Juliet Eilperin, it is my understanding also the administration is saying that this will save money in terms of public health costs.

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

When you do the math, what they are saying is because these tailpipe emissions, nitrogen oxide, soot, things like that, volatile organic compounds, those can contribute both to smog and in the case of soot also to heart and lung disease.

So overall they’re saying that, by 2030, the benefits will be between $8 billion and $23 billion dollars, outweighing the cost of compliance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just to clarify, Juliet, the argument here is that it’s not that the sulfur itself in gasoline is the problem; it’s what it does to the catalytic converter, the emissions device.

JULIET EILPERIN: Right. That’s what is very interesting.

Basically, the more sulfur you have, the less effective the catalytic converter is. So, as a result, you have greater tailpipe emissions. And it is these emission, the volatile organic compounds, the nitrogen oxide, the carbon monoxide and the soot, that are what actually affects the air that we breathe and what it does to our heart and lungs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, let’s broaden this out, because at the same time the administration issued these proposals today, meanwhile, everybody is out there waiting for two other sets of, I guess, regulations or proposals from the administration.

One has to do with of course the Keystone oil pipeline.

JULIET EILPERIN: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other one are the greenhouse gas emissions for power plants.

JULIET EILPERIN: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does this factor in to those sets of regulations which are — we’re waiting to hear now?

JULIET EILPERIN: Right.

I think it’s all part of the broader Obama second-term agenda. And so what they are obviously saying is, they are moving ahead with this, this one. They have made it more cost-effective and they’re saying it is a huge public benefit. At the same time, the environmentalists are looking at all these other fronts. And they’re saying, for example, on the Keystone pipeline, that they are saying that, you know, yes, this will supply oil from Canada, but it’s basically a referendum on what Obama will do on climate.

So that is a very difficult decision that he will be making this summer. It is unclear what he is going to do, whether he is going to disappoint the community. And what also looking at is whether they will regulate both greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. That’s something that should be finalized soon, but may not be. Or are they going to regulate existing power plants in the future?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how do you see the calculus here in announcing this while these others are pending?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, certainly, this is something that was broadly welcomed by the environmental community.

And it’s really going — it’s going to be, with one possible exception, one of the most significant air policy rules that the Obama administration does. But it’s not going to make up for, for example, if they decide to allow the Keystone pipeline to go through. That and regulating existing power plants, those are the two biggest litmus tests for the Obama administration this term.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, these are proposals, but is it expected that they will take effect?

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes. While they haven’t outlined the timeline — for example, the rules that were unveiled today could take a few months.

These are proposed rules, but there is an expectation that, since they have already done some negotiations, the final rule that will be adopted in a matter of months will be very similar to what we are seeing today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Juliet Eilperin, the Washington Post, thank you very much.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you so much.