Cities Have Cleaner Air Due to New Cars on Road

The EPA is slow to adjust regulations, causing fuel refiners grief

THIRTEEN United States cities, from San Diego to Baltimore, have seen their air quality improve so much in the last two years that they now meet federal requirements. But that doesn't automatically excuse them from programs that could cost motorists up to 10 cents per gallon.

Some of those cities are ignoring the law - the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. Others are seeking redesignation as meeting the standard.

At stake for business is a key market for corn-derived ethanol and possibly another pollution-control program under which the refining industry expects to spend tens of billions of dollars.

The 1990 amendments listed 39 metropolitan areas that failed national ambient air quality standards for carbon monoxide (CO). It ordered 42 localities to sell only gasoline with at least 2.7 percent oxygen content in the winter to reduce carbon monoxide emissions during cold starts. This program began Nov. 1. Higher costs

To boost the oxygen content, refiners usually add either ethanol or MTBE, a petroleum-derived chemical. Buying, storing, and transporting the oxygenates have boosted the price of gasoline by as much as 10 cents per gallon in some markets.

The price reflects in some part a misreading of the market by refiners. Last year, fearing a shortage of those additives, they began to build a stockpile that had reached 1 billion gallons by last October. They paid up to $1.10 per gallon, but an unforeseen surplus has let the spot price fall to $0.80 per gallon.

Sparing consumers the higher cost of oxygenated gasoline is strong motivation for localities that have cleaner air to try to duck out of the winter oxygenated fuels program. Thirteen of the original 42 CO offenders had a clean record during 1990-91, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged in October.

Although that finding didn't release them from the law, two of those cities - Duluth, Minn., and Memphis - have not started a winter fuels program. Neither has Boston, which remains on the polluters list but disputed the EPA's data. An EPA official says that Boston will comply next year. Conflicting positions

Localities that disregard the law could lose federal highway funds, but that probably won't happen. "How can they threaten sanctions and also say the cities meet the standards?" asks Susanne Stitzer of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Meanwhile, Ms. Stitzer put "a ton of work" into preparing the 695-page request to have Duluth officially recategorized as a nonpolluter. Memphis, Cleveland, and Syracuse, N.Y. have submitted similar filings, which the EPA must evaluate within 18 months.

How did the cities meet the air-quality standards even before the regulations take effect? In the case of Cleveland and Duluth, changed traffic patterns seem to have dispersed the carbon monoxide. In other cities, though, turnover in the automobile fleet seems to be responsible. Old cars are the culprits

As much as half of air pollution from automobiles comes from the oldest 10 percent of the fleet. "It's conceivable that areas that were out of attainment can come into attainment just by the turnover of old vehicles," says Gary Schoonveld at Phillips Petroleum.

This was demonstrated even more dramatically by the 97 areas cited in the Clean Air Act for non-attainment on ozone (alias smog). Forty-one localities came into compliance during 1989-91.

By 1995, oil companies must offer reformulated gasoline to reduce smog in the nine worst cities that consume 25 percent of the nation's gasoline. But the rest of the 97 ozone offenders, consuming half the nation's gasoline, have the right to opt in.

But will they steer clear as is happening on oxygenated fuels? "What's the demand going to be in 1995?" asks Amoco Corporation spokesman Tom Mueller. The uncertainty convulses refiners, which have just a few years to make investments of up to $30 billion to reformulate gasoline.

Regardless of short-term improvements in air quality owing to newer cars, by 2000 pollution will begin to rise again because of growth in miles traveled and congestion, says William Becker, director of an association of state air control officials.

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