New EPA Rules for Gasoline Limit Benzene, a Carcinogen

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Environmental Protection Agency issued rules yesterday that will dramatically cut toxic fumes from cars and trucks over the next 25 years.

The regulations, which will reduce the amount of cancer-causing benzene in gasoline and set tighter emission standards for autos in cold temperatures and for fuel containers, will help reduce toxic emissions from passenger cars by 80 percent from 1999 levels by 2030.

"Americans love their cars," EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said in a statement. "By clearing the air from tons of fuel and exhaust pollution, President Bush and EPA are paving the road toward healthier drivers and a cleaner environment."

Among air pollutants, benzene -- which naturally occurs in crude oil and is increased through refining to boost gasoline's octane rating -- poses the second-biggest cancer risk to Americans, after diesel emissions. In 2004 it constituted 1 percent of U.S. gas on average; under the new rule benzene levels will drop to an average of 0.62 percent.

The EPA will allow oil refineries to trade pollution credits among themselves as long as the industry as a whole stays below the limit, but the agency imposed an absolute cap of 1.3 percent benzene in any given product. The rule also sets tougher emission standards for cars operating at temperatures of 20 degrees Fahrenheit or below, as well as for fuel evaporation from tanks, fuel lines and gas cans.

Environmentalists, who had successfully sued EPA for failing to issue a benzene ruling by 2004, hailed yesterday's move but questioned the decision to allow refineries to trade emission credits.

"We're happy that EPA has addressed this important public health issue at last, even if it did take a federal court case to make the agency act," said Marti Sinclair, a volunteer for the advocacy group Sierra Club. "But it is disappointing that EPA would undermine its own program by adopting this dangerous trading scheme."

But Frank O'Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said the new regulation would help improve air quality nationwide: "Benzene levels everywhere are going to drop."

In an interview, William Wehrum, acting assistant administrator for EPA's air and radiation office, said the agency is protecting Americans' health by capping benzene levels. EPA estimates that the rule, which will take effect in 2011 for gasoline, will cost $400 million to implement in 2030 and produce $6 billion in health benefits.

"We want to achieve good environmental outcomes in the cheapest way possible," he said. "We do expect some minor variations from place to place."

Charles T. Drevna, executive vice president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, which represents oil refineries, said facilities in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest "are going to have to do a lot more than we anticipated" to meet the new standards.

"What's the impact on supply and cost, that's my concern," said Drevna, who added that his members are already having to change their processes to meet low-sulfur diesel standards and other federal rules. "This is, as Pink Floyd would say, another brick in the wall."

Some environmentalists are still pushing to eliminate two other air toxics that improve gasoline performance, toluene and xylene, as well as to clean up diesel fuel. "This is a missed opportunity to clean up the air and save lives," said Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition.

But Wehrum said the administration had tried to produce a practical and effective rule. "The single most important thing we can do to reduce the risks associated with toxic emissions is to focus on benzene," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company