EPA Rule on GHG Standards for Passenger Vehicles Fails to Address Fuel Quality

Source: By Ernie Shea, Solutions from the Land • Posted: Tuesday, December 21, 2021

On Monday, the EPA acted to further tighten the federal standards for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the nation’s passenger vehicle fleet. While the decision to strengthen the stringency rule proposed by the agency back in August was not unexpected, SfL was disappointed that the final rule did not include provisions to improve fuel quality by reducing the aromatic content of gasoline.

Aromatics are base components derived from fossil fuels that blenders use to increase gasoline’s octane rating, a measure of the fuel’s effectiveness. However, aromatics also have been tied to threats to public health, damaging respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Deemed by EPA officials to be “ambitious,” the rule covering new vehicles through 2026 also set the light-duty GHG program on a track to provide what they hope is a strong launch point for the agency’s next phase of standards for model year (MY) 2027 and beyond. A separate rulemaking is expected to establish multi-pollutant emission standards under the Clean Air Act for 2027 models and beyond that the EPA says will speed the transition of the light-duty vehicle fleet toward a zero-emissions future.

The agency insists the standards finalized this week are based on sound science and grounded in a rigorous assessment of current and future technologies with supporting analysis that shows the standards are achievable and affordable. According to EPA, through 2050, the program will result in avoiding more than 3 billion tons of GHG emissions which is equivalent to more than half the total U.S. CO2 emissions in 2019.

Increasing emissions standards is an important pathway to addressing climate change. But so too is ratcheting up the stringency of standards for fuel quality, which the rule does not do.

While the proposal includes incentives for the production of vehicles with zero or near-zero emissions technology, it does not include a fuel quality provision that could significantly reduce GHG emissions from gasoline-powered vehicles.

It is a missed opportunity of enormous scale. Research by Steffen Mueller, principal economist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, shows that greenhouse gas cuts that could be achieved by using higher-octane midlevel blends with ethanol equal those that EPA thinks are available from electrification. EPA is thus ignoring a very cost-effective way of achieving its desired improvements to the detriment of environmental quality, consumers, farmers, and industry.

A letter in June from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI), which represents 38 companies producing 99 percent of the light duty vehicles sold in the Unites States, expressed support of high-octane, low-carbon fuels to increase the efficiency of current and future vehicles – an endorsement that further validates the role of ethanol in increasing the efficiency of current and future vehicles.

In comments submitted to the EPA on the rule in September, the AAI said ethanol blends higher than E10 could provide better value to consumers to achieve higher octane numbers and reduce carbon emissions. The group also cited research that found a transition to higher-octane gasoline was technically feasible and could be made without considerable increases in cost or carbon emissions for refineries and the retail sector. Higher octane, ethanol-blend gasoline should be encouraged as soon as possible to maximize environmental benefits across the new car fleet, the automakers say.

While some will commend the agency for the standard announced Monday, it must be remembered that the agency only got half the job done. Fortunately, in its announcement of the new rule, EPA officials did acknowledge the need for additional rulemaking to make further improvements in GHG and particulate matter emissions. SfL stands ready to share research and other information with policy makers to maximize the benefits that can be gained from these important, low-carbon, high-performance fuels going forward.