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Opponents attack EPA proposal requiring cleaner fuel, cars in the U.S.

The oil industry and key Republicans criticized the Obama administration Friday for moving ahead with regulations requiring cleaner gasoline and lower-pollution vehicles nationwide, saying the measures would unduly burden refineries and raise gas prices at the pump.

The regulations announced by the Environmental Protection Agency would reduce the amount of sulfur in U.S. gasoline by two-thirds and impose fleetwide pollution limits on new vehicles by 2017. The agency said the requirements, which The Washington Post first reported Thursday, would add less than a penny to the price of a gallon of gas while delivering major health benefits.

But oil industry officials and their congressional allies said it would hurt American fuel refiners and could cause gas prices to rise by an average of 2 cents a gallon, or as much as 9 cents a gallon in some areas.

Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the administration had ignored the rule’s potential economic impacts, which “include importing more foreign energy, increasing our trade deficit and reducing our energy security.”

The proposed standards had been held under review at the Office of Management and Budget since December 2011. By 2030, the agency estimates, they will deliver up to $23 billion in health benefits, helping avoid up to 2,400 premature deaths per year and 23,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children.

Although gasoline sulfur does not pose a public-health threat on its own, it hampers the effectiveness of catalytic converters, which in turn leads to greater tailpipe emissions. These emissions — nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and fine particles — contribute to smog and soot, which can cause respiratory and heart disease.

Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said in a statement the rule was part of “a series of steps” the administration has undertaken to make the nation’s auto fleet cleaner and more efficient.

“Today’s proposed standards — which will save thousands of lives and protect the most vulnerable — are the next step in our work to protect public health and will provide the automotive industry with the certainty they need to offer the same car models in all 50 states,” he said.

But opponents see the regulations as unnecessary overreach by the Obama administration. Vitter specifically criticized Obama’s nominee for EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, who oversaw the rule’s development as head of the agency’s air and radiation office.

“This move signals a frightening flood of new rules under the potential Gina McCarthy-led EPA and represents one of a litany of likely regulations that require transparency to justify both the costs and the benefits,” Vitter said.

The regulations are supported by environmental advocates, state regulators and automobile companies, which would prefer uniform sulfur standards for fuel nationwide. Opponents say it will cost up to $10 billion to upgrade refineries and an additional $2.4 billion in annual operating costs.

Public-health advocates and the administration say the ultimate cost is likely to be much lower because of provisions giving refiners flexibility in complying with the standards.

Those provisions include a three-year delay for small refiners, rewards for businesses that act early to reduce sulfur and a trading program for pollution credits.

The difference in price estimates between the two sides is rooted in disagreement over how much those concessions will ease refiners’ transition to producing cleaner fuel.

Environmentalists such as Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said the rule, if finalized, would help communities across the country meet federal air quality standards.

O’Donnell called the proposal “a lifeline for breathers,” noting that one in three Americans lives in an area that does not meet current air quality requirements.

“This is the single most effective strategy possible to reduce smog levels around the nation,” he said.

The EPA estimates that when the rule is fully enacted, it will cut smog-forming volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides by 80 percent and reduce soot by 70 percent.

But Charles T. Drevna, president of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, said a “rulemaking that targets trace amounts of sulfur in gasoline is not worth the direct threat to our domestic fuel supply, consumer cost at the pump and American jobs.”

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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