Tier 3 Gasoline: Air-Pollution Slayer or Tail Pipe Dream?

Smog & Pollution Hang Over The Salt Lake Valley
Smog & Pollution Hang Over The Salt Lake Valley

With Utah well into the annual inversion season, government officials and advocacy groups are scrambling to find a solution to the state’s ever-declining air quality. Dozens of clean air bills are currently making their way through the legislative process. Last month, thousands of concerned citizens rallied at the Utah State Capitol for clean air and Governor Gary Herbert (Republican) made air quality one of the key points in his State of the State address.

In the midst of all this political theater, a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dramatically reduce air pollution from cars and trucks has been met with some approval in Utah. Herbert and the Utah Air Quality Board both support the measure to adopt Tier 3 gasoline—gas that produces much less emissions because it has lower levels of chemicals like sulfur—as the standard for the state.

But the proposed standards have been met with some opposition. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association for the oil and gas industry, opposes Tier 3 because, according to them, it would be too costly and provide a negligible amount of environmental benefits, and there would not be enough time given to reasonably implement the necessary upgrades needed at local refineries.

And the refineries are not alone in their objections. Last February, a letter signed by U.S. Senators David Vitter (Republican – Louisiana), Heidi Heitkamp (Democrat – North Dakota), James Inhofe (Republican – Oklahoma), and Mary Landrieu (Democrat – Louisiana) was sent to President Obama urging him not to move forward with the EPA’s proposal. “This major rule-making could cost U.S. refiners billions of dollars, raise gasoline manufacturing costs, make it harder for U.S. refiners to compete in the global marketplace, and discourage refinery expansion here at home. The result could create a need to import more gasoline, increasing our trade deficit and reducing our energy security. Moreover, there is a lack of clear evidence to show the Tier 3 sulfur reduction envisioned by EPA would benefit health.”

Two tiers of emission standards for light-duty vehicles in the United States were created as a result of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Tier 1 was adopted in 1991 and phased in from 1994 to 1997. Tier 2 was phased in from 2004 to 2009.

Beginning in 2017, Tier 3 would set new vehicle emissions standards and lower the sulfur content of gasoline. The proposed standards would reduce tailpipe and evaporative emissions from cars, trucks, and some heavy-duty vehicles. The proposed gasoline sulfur standards would enable more stringent emissions standards. The proposed tailpipe standards would be phased in between 2017 and 2025.

According to the EPA, by 2030 the Tier 3 standards would annually prevent, nationwide, between 820 and 2,400 premature deaths, 1.8 million lost school and work days, 3,200 hospital admissions, and 22,000 asthma exacerbations.

The EPA also contends that Tier 3 would be a cost-effective measure. It has been estimated that it would cost about a penny per gallon of gasoline. The approximate cost of the program in 2030 would be $3.4 billion, though the health benefits would be between $8 and $23 billion.

Here in Utah, lawmakers are hedging their bets on Tier 3. In a recent press conference, Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser (Republican – Sandy) noted that the Senate is willing to consider Tier 3 legislation, but that the body as a whole requires more time to study the issue. Clean-air advocates worry that if the state does not act quickly enough, the citizens will miss out on an opportunity to improve air quality.

Will the Utah State Legislature join Governor Herbert and embrace Tier 3? Only time will tell.

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