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Katrina's Aftermath

California May Temporarily Relax Air Standards

Regulators' plan, rooted in the loss of Gulf Coast petroleum imports, could help deter more gas price hikes. Others doubt proposal's need.

September 08, 2005|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — California air quality regulators want to temporarily relax gasoline pollution standards to help avert possible shortages and more price hikes stemming from the loss of petroleum imports from hurricane-battered Gulf states.

At a hearing today in Sacramento, the California Air Resources Board is scheduled to consider an emergency action reducing the standards normally in place until Oct. 31 in most parts of the state.

Essentially, the action would permit the early sale of so-called winter gasoline and waive the requirement to sell summer gasoline during the remainder of the high-ozone season.

Following Hurricane Katrina -- which damaged oil rigs, refineries and other production facilities -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would allow the nationwide distribution of gasoline with a lower evaporative standard than some states, including California, require.

Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Washington were among states that subsequently moved to relax their standards.

On Tuesday, California air board staff members recommended similar action, saying the state is faced with a potential loss of 5% to 10% of its gasoline supplies because of its reduced ability to import what's known as finished gas and blend stocks.

"The decrease in supply would be expected to have a significant adverse effect on the availability and price of gasoline in California and surrounding states," a staff report said.

The proposal calls for increasing the allowable Reid Vapor Pressure -- a measure of evaporation -- from about 7 pounds per square inch to 9 pounds per square inch, meaning more gasoline vapor would escape into the atmosphere.

The result, said air board spokesman Jerry Martin, would be an increase of 50 tons daily of hydrocarbon emissions statewide -- a boost of about 6% or 7%.

The board's staff also calculated that the ozone level would increase by about 1%.

"Potentially, on a very hot day in the Central Valley or Southern California, with very stagnant air, it might lead to a violation of federal ozone standards," Martin said.

"But this is an emergency situation.... And the consequences of the hurricane here are minor compared with what is happening in the Mississippi Delta."

Sierra Club senior representative Bill Magavern said: "We do not think Californians want our air to be smoggier than it already is. I am skeptical of the need to weaken our air quality standards."

The hurricane has resulted in about a 10% loss of the nation's oil refining capacity -- and California regulators fear that without an increase in in-state production, gas prices could hike even higher and shortages could occur until imports from the Gulf Coast are restored to normal levels.

Scott Folwarkow, director of governmental affairs for Valero Energy Corp. in Sacramento, said the proposal is a good one because it gives oil companies the flexibility to expand supplies by adding chemicals such as butane, which is normally removed from summer gasoline.

Folwarkow said the company's refinery in St. Charles, La., one of nine refineries knocked out by the hurricane, is beginning to produce oil and should be operating fully by the end of the week.

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