Cleaner gasoline, cleaner air

Low-sulfur fuel: Nationwide standard needed to protect auto catalytic converters, cut pollution.

April 18, 1999

CLEANER gasoline means cleaner-running cars. That's the environmental message major oil companies have advertised for years. So why do refiners object to low-sulfur fuel that would cut air pollution the equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the road?

Primarily, the cost. Billions of dollars would be needed to convert refineries to remove the natural sulfur from petroleum. The cost of a gallon of gasoline could rise by 10 cents to 20 cents, the industry warns.

The auto industry wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require a nationwide gasoline with 90 percent less sulfur than the current 340 parts per million average. Sulfur destroys the ability of catalytic converters in autos to burn up exhaust pollutants, coating and poisoning the cleanup devices used on 190 million vehicles in this country.

Development of next-generation, low-emissions autos, using direct-injection engines and hybrid gas-electric technology, also depends on fuel with much lower sulfur content. California has required low-sulfur gas since 1996, with no shortages and an added cost of perhaps 3 cents a gallon.

Refiners support plans to require low sulfur in certain regions with the worst air, but not in others.

Air quality has improved markedly since 1970: emissions of major pollutants have dropped by one-third. Catalytic converters are a major reason. To make them work better and last longer, the EPA must demand the nationwide use of cleaner, low-sulfur gasoline.

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