EPA Seeks Less Benzene In Gasoline

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday proposed cutting toxic emissions from cars nearly in half by 2030, drawing praise from many environmentalists while sparking concern among gasoline refiners.

The new standards, which are subject to a 60-day comment period, would take effect in 2011. They would force refiners to reduce the annual average benzene content in their gasoline by 36 percent and would establish a national trading system so companies producing gas with more benzene content could buy pollution credits from cleaner refiners. Auto manufacturers would also have to install technology to reduce benzene emissions in new cars.

Benzene, a naturally occurring carcinogen, accounts for about 1 percent of gasoline content; it causes an estimated 40 to 60 U.S. deaths a year. Under the Bush administration's proposal, by 2030 passenger cars would emit 45 percent less benzene than today and release 350,000 fewer tons of benzene and other toxins.

"America has a history of loving its cars," EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said. "By cleaning up our fuels and vehicle exhaust, EPA is paving the road toward a cleaner environment and healthier drivers."

S. William Becker, executive director for the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, said states have spent eight years trying to get the federal government to impose stricter standards on air toxics.

"It's disappointing that it's taken this long, but at least they've taken a good first step," Becker said. "This is not an expensive change, but it's a very important one in terms of air quality."

The standards should cost just $0.0013 per gallon to implement, the EPA estimated, and add less than $1 to the average cost of a car. This translates into a cost of $205 million a year for an estimated $6 billion in health benefits annually by 2030.

But Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, said the proposal would cost his membership much more.

"The new standards on gasoline, including benzene, is a challenge," Slaughter said. He added that he will survey refiners to see how much it would cost them and how it might affect the nation's gas supply.

Becker and other environmentalists said they are concerned the pollution credit trading system would mean Americans in some regions would continue to breathe elevated levels of benzene. Gas in Rocky Mountain states, for example, often has benzene levels two to three times those in other areas.

But Slaughter said the trading system would cushion the plan's financial impact. "It makes a difficult proposal at least marginally more workable," he said.

Conrad Schneider, advocacy director for the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental group, faulted the administration for not imposing stricter limits on diesel emissions as part of the new rules. They account for an estimated 3,000 U.S. deaths by lung cancer a year.

Both the Bush and Clinton administrations have imposed stricter diesel pollution rules over the past few years, but because diesel engines last so long the fleet will not turn over until about 2030.

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