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Published: Friday, 4/5/2013

Slashing sulfur

When Congress won’t deal with the President on cleaning the air, the administration must act on its own. That’s what the Environmental Protection Agency has done in announcing a new rule that will reduce sulfur in gasoline and toughen vehicle emissions standards.

The EPA says the change could mean an increase in gas prices of less than a penny a gallon starting in 2017, and add $130 to the cost of a new car in 2025. But the modest cost will be offset by savings of billions of dollars in health-care bills from reduced smog and soot pollution.

The change will cut sulfur levels in gasoline by more than 60 percent and reduce nitrogen oxides by 80 percent. Even though gasoline sulfur is not a public-health threat, it can prevent a vehicle’s catalytic converter from doing its job, leading to greater tailpipe pollution. That, in turn, would make it harder for states to meet clean-air standards.

Although environmental advocates and even automakers called for the rule, the oil and gasoline industries were opposed, saying the cost to consumers would be higher than the EPA estimates. Industry representatives said it would cost as much as $10 billion to overhaul refineries to meet the new fuel standard, and another $2.4 billion a year in operating costs.

But the EPA surveyed 111 refineries and found that 29 can already meet the standard, 66 can reach it with modest upgrades, and only 16 would need major changes. The four years of notice before the rule takes effect will give refineries adequate time to make the needed overhauls.

Public-health advocates say the change is likely to be the most significant air quality improvement of President Obama’s second term. If it has to be imposed by the EPA instead of through an obstinate Congress, so be it.

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