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Will Utah Weigh in on EPA’s New Cleaner Fuels and Cars Standards?

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is now taking public comment on proposed new cleaner fuels and cars standards. Known as Tier 3 of the Clean Air Act Amendments, they’re designed to improve air quality and public health by reducing the sulfur content of gasoline and making cars more efficient. 

Once in place, the EPA claims the new standards will prevent more than 2000 premature deaths and thousands of emergency room visits per year across the country. Christopher Thomas is Executive Director of HEAL Utah, a health and environmental advocacy organization. He says Utah, which has seen the worst pollution in the country during the last winter inversion , could benefit substantially from these standards. 

“These new standards proposed by the EPA could be huge for Utah. As I look at the air pollution problem, this is one of the biggest single improvements we can make that will have incredible near term benefits to our health,” Thomas says.

The proposal cuts a range of pollutants from car emissions including volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. The proposed standards would reduce gasoline sulfur levels by more than 60 percent, which enables emission control technologies to function more efficiently. The EPA estimates the cost to achieve this standard would add about a penny per gallon of gas to the consumer. 

“I think if you asked most Utahns who live across the Wasatch front, would they be willing to invest an additional penny per gallon to have cleaner air, I think you’d get a resounding yes,” Thomas says. “Actually, public polling has shown, most Americans agree that we need these cleaner standards, we need cleaner air, and we’re willing to make that investment.”

While many support the new standards, refineries are categorically opposed because of the costs to get the sulfur content of gasoline down to 10 parts per million. Tesoro which has a refinery in Salt Lake City has been a vocal critic of the standards. In a statement to KUER, officials say there is a lack of discernible health benefits when compared to the costs of compliance. And they say the EPA has refused to share any real cost/benefit analysis with the industry or with Congress. Michael Astin is the Environmental Manager for HollyFronier refinery in Woods Cross. 

“Their cost estimates are wrong in what it’s going to cost the refineries to do this,” Astin says. “People have the mistaken opinion that all we have to do is turn down the sulfur in gasoline knob, and the amount of sulfur in gasoline goes down, and it’s technically not possible.”

Astin says the company already spent 100 million dollars on operational improvements to meet previous sulfur standards less than 10 years ago. He says he can’t estimate the costs to comply with new standards, because HollyFrontier hasn’t even figured out the engineering necessary to achieve additional reductions in sulfur. And he warns that the new standards may actually increase emissions at the refinery.

“I don’t know how we’re going to it, but it’s probably going to require that we install at least one complete new unit,” Astin says. “That new unit is also going to have heaters and it’s going to require energy, and it’s going to have emissions.”

Astin says consumers may end up paying more at the pump if some refineries are forced to go out of business…. though he doesn’t see HollyFrontier going under. 

Historically Governor Gary Herbert has been supportive of the refining industry in the state, but Christopher Thomas of HEAL Utah wants the Governor to publicly support the new EPA standards.

“There are so many people and groups that are supportive of these new standards, but the main critics right now happen to be Congressional Republicans and refineries,” Thomas says. “There would be nothing better for this air quality standard to move forward than to have somebody like Governor Herbert - a Republican Governor -  to stand up alongside the EPA to say how important this is for all of our health.”

The Governor’s office directed KUER’s interview request to Bryce Bird, Director of the state’s Division of Air Quality. Bird says they are early in the process of reviewing the proposal, and the state has not taken an official position. But from his agency’s perspective, the EPA’s proposed standards would clearly benefit Utah’s air quality.

“Really, I expect that this is something that we should support,” Bird says. “Here at the state level, of course vehicles are very important to us.  Over 50 percent of the emissions on a daily basis come from those vehicles.  If we can find a cost effective way to make sure that vehicles are cleaner and operated cleaner in the future, that’s certainly a win-win.  It doesn’t cost a lot, lets us keep our mobility and transportation system in place, but ultimately results in better air quality which is something we all want and need.”

The public comment period is open until June 13.  If approved, the new standards would go into effect in 2017.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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