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Smog, Soot, and Sulfur, Oh My!

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With all the focus on DC dysfunction these days, it’s nice to celebrate something good happening in Washington that will help us all breathe a little easier. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled its new tailpipe and fuel standards today, a critical step aimed at improving air quality and public health.

Known in regulatory parlance as Tier 3, the new standards require reductions of smog-forming pollution from cars and trucks and significant cuts in the sulfur content in gasoline. As you may have surmised, these standards are the third in a series of rules (after Tier 1 and Tier 2) – and they build on the cost-effective success of these existing regulations.

So what does Tier 3 mean and why does it matter to communities across the country? Here is a quick snapshot of the proposed standards and their many benefits:

  • Big emissions reductions: The Tier 3 standards will cut emissions of a range of harmful pollutants, reducing smog-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds by 80%. Vehicles would emit 70% less particulate matter and toxic pollutants such as benzene would be reduced by 40%. Cars remain the number two source of nitrogen oxide emissions and volatile organic compounds in our air, but there’s enormous potential to reduce this pollution with standards like Tier 3.
  • Cleaner fuel means immediate benefits: By reducing the sulfur content of the gasoline we pump into vehicles already on the road, the pollution-reduction and public health benefits of Tier 3 will be immediate. In 2017, the proposed reduction in the average gasoline sulfur concentration from 30 parts per million (ppm) to 10 ppm will reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from existing vehicles by 260,000 tons, the equivalent to taking 33 million of today’s cars off our nation’s roads according to a study by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. The proposed sulfur reductions are  consistent with the global trend to reduce sulfur in gasoline. China has announced plans to move ahead with a 10ppm standard.
  • Big health benefits for years to come: The standards will help reduce asthma attacks, respiratory problems, and premature death caused by harmful, smog-forming emissions, improving public health and cutting costs. By 2030, the EPA estimates that the proposed standards will prevent up to 2,400 premature deaths, 23,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children, 3,200 hospital admissions and asthma-related emergency room visits, and 1.8 million lost school days, work days, and days when activities would be restricted due to air pollution each year. The EPA estimates that in 2030 these health benefits will have a dollar value of between $8 and $23 billion annually.
  • More American jobs: A study by Navigant Economics estimated that implementing the Tier 3 program will create almost 5,300 permanent jobs in the operation and maintenance of new refining equipment, as well as more than 24,000 new jobs over a three-year period for equipment installation at U.S. refineries. In addition, Tier 3 will drive the advancements in emission control technologies – which are developed in the United States and exported globally.

Sounds like a win-win situation. In fact, the standards have broad support from science, environmental and health organizations, the United Auto Workers, consumer groups, the manufacturers of emission control technology, and many automakers.

So who would oppose such cost-effective, health protective, job creating, technology enhancing standards? The answer, which may not surprise you, is the oil industry. Oil companies and their allies in Congress have worked hard to stall the proposal of these standards, and they continue to rely on misleading and discredited data that overestimates the standards’ costs. In fact, according to the proposal, it will cost refiners only an additional penny per gallon to reduce the sulfur content of gasoline to the mandated level.  That’s a cost they can afford and a small price to pay for the health and economic benefits of Tier 3. But, once again, the oil industry is putting their self-interest over the public interest.

Getting back to the good news – now that the proposal is out, the EPA will be scheduling public hearings and opening up a public comment period. That will be your chance to be part of the growing chorus in support of the standards, so stay tuned to our blog and follow us on twitter (@ucsusa or @ucsrachel) – we will keep you posted on the best way to make your voice heard in the weeks ahead.

Photo: iStock

Posted in: Fossil Fuels, Global Warming, Vehicles Tags: ,

About the author: Michelle Robinson has more than 25 years of experience in public policy and advocacy. She joined the Clean Vehicles program in 1992 and is a nationally recognized expert on state and federal transportation policy. See Michelle's full bio.

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  • Elizabeth Wiley

    I really would welcome a smog part that was CHEAP, would not get stolen (the titanium one on certain work trucks is often stolen and costs hundreds to take off and replace) I think it is possible, and then we could ALL work to make sure every auto maker puts them in, and recalls and makes EVERY SINGLE vehicle, (FREE, no matter how old) able to use that changeable and easily replaced piece. Kind of like an air or oil filter. JiffyLube might even give a grant if they could add it to their 2000 mile check up.

    Cooler, better, and cheaper would clean up the air worldwide, at least from vehicles.

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