WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to unveil a major regulation Monday that forces oil refiners to strip out sulfur, a smog-forming pollutant linked to respiratory disease, from American gasoline blends, according to people familiar with the agency’s plans.
When burned in gasoline, sulfur blocks pollution-control equipment in vehicle engines, which increases tailpipe emissions linked to lung disease, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, aggravated heart disease, and premature births and deaths. Proponents of the rule say it will be President Obama’s most significant public health achievement in his second term, but opponents, chiefly oil refiners, say it is unnecessarily costly and an unfair burden on them.
The EPA estimates that the new rule will dramatically reduce soot and smog in the United States, and thus rates of diseases associated with those pollutants, while slightly raising the price of both gasoline and cars. The rule will require oil refiners to install expensive equipment to clean sulfur out of gasoline and force automakers to install new, cleaner-burning engine technology.
EPA officials estimate that the new regulation will raise the cost of gasoline by about two-thirds of 1 cent per gallon and add about $75 to the sticker price of cars. But oil refiners say that it will cost their industry $10 billion and raise gasoline costs by up to 9 cents per gallon.
The EPA’s studies conclude that by 2030, the cleaner-burning gasoline will yield between $6.7 billion and $19 billion annually in economic benefits by saving lives and preventing missed work and school days due to illness. The agency estimates that, annually, the new rule will prevent between 770 and 2,000 premature deaths; 2,200 hospital admissions and asthma-related emergency room visits; 19,000 asthma attacks, 30,000 cases of symptoms of respiratory symptoms in children, and 1.4 million lost school and work days.
“There is no other regulatory strategy that is as important from a health standpoint, in the foreseeable future,” said S. William Becker, director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Until now, the sulfur content standards in American gasoline lagged far behind those used in the European Union, Japan, and South Korea. The new rule will close that pollution gap by cutting American gasoline sulfur content by more than 60 percent, from 30 parts per million of sulfur down to 10 parts per million, starting in 2017.
The cleaner gasoline standard has been years in the making. Obama asked the EPA to create the rule in a 2010 presidential memorandum, and public health and environmental advocates lobbied the agency aggressively to complete it. It is the most recent in a cascade of aggressive air pollution regulations that have emerged as a hallmark of the Obama administration.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, the forthcoming gasoline rule was a hotly contested political target. Republicans criticized it as an example of what they called the Obama administration’s regulatory overreach.
But since the presidential election, some Republicans have said they welcome the rule. Governor Gary R. Herbert of Utah, a conservative Republican, said that because of mountain weather patterns, tailpipe smog is often trapped around Salt Lake City, giving his state many days with “gunky air that rivals LA.”
Herbert said the new rule would help clean up his state’s air. “We’ve got to find a way to eliminate that with cleaner fuels and cleaner autos,” he said in an interview. “Dirty air is not a partisan issue. The fact that we have technology that’s available — cleaner burning fuels, cleaner burning autos — we ought to embrace that.”
The new rule will have a significant impact on the health of low-income Americans who live near major highways, said Al Rizzo, a pulmonologist at Christiana Care Health System in Newark, Del., and a former chairman of the American Lung Association’s board of directors. “The population that lives close to highways, that has the greatest exposure to these pollutants, air quality makes a big difference for them,” Rizzo said.
But oil refiners say that the rule will hurt their industry.
Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, which lobbies for the oil refining industry, said that the rule comes on top of a series of other burdensome regulations. A decade ago, American gasoline contained 300 parts per million of sulfur, but earlier rules required refiners to cut the sulfur content by 90 percent, down to the current 30 parts per million.
Drevna said it was easier to comply with the earlier regulations because removing the first 90 percent of sulfur molecules from gasoline can be done without difficulty. Wringing the last 10 percent of those molecules is harder.
“They’re tough little buggers that don’t want to come out,” Drevna said.
Not all industries oppose the regulation. Although the auto industry estimates that the rule will cost automakers about $15 billion over 10 years, Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include General Motors, Ford, and Toyota, said her group had worked closely with the Obama administration to develop the regulation and does not oppose it.
That is in part, she said, because complying with the new clean-gasoline regulation will help automakers more easily meet another set of Obama administration regulations, tightening vehicle fuel economy standards.
“We understand that this is the trend, to get cars cleaner and cleaner,” Bergquist said. “Our engineers are prepared to work for it.”