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At the pump in Michigan. (AP)

Why not relax EPA pollution standards to help lower gas prices?

ASK THIS | June 16, 2004

High gas prices will be a big election-year issue, says Duke University professor William Schlesinger. Several states already have asked the Bush administration to relax EPA rules requiring the use of cleaner but more costly gasoline blends. Reporters need to cover the long-term consequences of such an action, not just its short-term savings.

By William H. Schlesinger



Q: Some states are asking the Bush administration to ease EPA rules that require the use of cleaner but higher-priced fuel blends.  Will consumer gas prices at the pumps drop significantly as a result?


Q: What will the long-term tradeoffs be, in terms of increased costs for environmental and human health?


Q: Why isn’t government doing more to cut fuel consumption as well as fuel costs?


As America heads into an election-year summer with gas prices averaging around $2 a gallon, state and federal government leaders – many of them up for re-election – are weighing a lot of different options to lower pump prices. 


Chief among these: In May, U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald Evans announced that the Bush administration is considering easing Environmental Protection Agency regulations that require states to use higher-priced fuel blends formulated to reduce hazardous pollutants from vehicle emissions.


The savings yielded by such an action may bring some short-term relief to consumers, but there’s more to this story than a feel-good sound byte from a grateful motorist and some self-congratulatory spin from elected officials. 


Reporters need to eye those promised price savings skeptically in light of the growing global demand for petroleum, especially in China, where fuel consumption is increasing at a rate of nearly 10 percent a year.  Future price increases triggered by this demand may quickly swallow up any savings produced by rescinded fuel-blend standards.


The main economic beneficiaries of the relaxed EPA rules may not be consumers at all, but oil companies, who dislike the fuel blends because they are costly and time-consuming to formulate and distribute.  Having to produce only one generic blend would greatly benefit their bottom line – an outcome that wouldn’t, in itself, be objectionable (everyone deserves to make a fair profit on their labor) except for long-term costs to society.   


Transportation fuels are major sources of carbon monoxide and other hazardous pollutants that contribute to tropospheric ozone, which has been linked to higher rates of asthma, emphysema and other illnesses, especially among children and other vulnerable populations.  The EPA’s fuel blends are specifically derived to reduce these emissions.


Reporters need to ask health officials, environmental agencies and economists what the long-term local effects of relaxing these environmental safeguards might be.


The answers will vary by region, but they will likely consistently underscore one critical point: Easing environmental standards to bring about a short-term drop in pump prices is not an effective long-term energy-use strategy.  


A better policy for reducing per capita fuel costs without jeopardizing human or environmental health is to improve public transportation; increase state tax breaks for hybrid or alternative-energy vehicles; and boost all vehicles’ fuel efficiency.  There is no need for the average fuel efficiency of cars sold in the United States to be declining from 22.1 miles per gallon in 1988 to 20.4 in 2002 when the technology exists to produce a comfortable, reliable car that gets 55 miles per gallon.


This strategy has worked in Japan and Europe, where it spurred high-quality, high-density housing in cities (versus U.S. suburban sprawl), reduced the amount of money the average consumer spends on fuel each year, and stimulated new energy-use technologies that have given Japanese and European companies a competitive edge in the market.


Gas prices will be front-page news throughout the election, and perhaps beyond.  But in the rush to file their story about today’s price fluctuations and what they mean for our wallets, reporters shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the real story isn’t fuel costs, it’s fuel consumption.  What’s being done to reduce it?

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