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Gasoline Emission Standards Relaxed

State allows early use of 'winter gas' to help avoid hurricane-related price hikes, shortages. Some clean air groups object.

September 10, 2005|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — State air quality officials Friday temporarily relaxed gasoline evaporation standards to help avoid shortages and price spikes resulting from hurricane-related disruption of Gulf Coast oil operations.

Taking emergency action, Catherine Witherspoon, executive officer of the California Air Resources Board, gave the green light to the sale of gasoline formulated for winter use, which officials predict will increase the availability of gas but will also increase pollution.

The decision waived the requirement that only "summer gasoline," with less evaporation, can be sold during the high-ozone season, which ends Oct. 31 in most of the state.

During a hearing Thursday in Sacramento, oil industry representatives endorsed the agency's proposed response to hurricane damage to oil rigs, refineries and distribution facilities.

But environmental groups called for conservation to make up for reduced imports. And some challenged the wisdom of easing gasoline standards at a time of year when heat and air stagnation can produce severe air pollution.

"Public health is being sacrificed to keep us on the road," said John White, representing the American Lung Assn. of California and a number of environmental groups, including the Coalition for Clean Air.

Regulators expect that changing the evaporation standards will put an additional 50 tons of hydrocarbons into the air each day, an increase of 6% to 7%. Ozone would increase by about 1%.

Board officials acknowledged the relaxed rules could lead to violation of federal ozone standards on hot, still days. But they said they were faced with an emergency situation that could seriously disrupt gasoline supplies and hurt consumers and businesses.

Board spokesman Jerry Martin said Friday that the emergency rule change was not aimed at cutting the current pump prices but at improving supplies. "We have no control over price, which is determined by the market forces and refiners," he said. "We're eliminating the supply shortage, and hopefully that will stabilize prices."

California's action follows a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announcement that it would allow the nationwide distribution of gasoline with a lower evaporative standard than some states require. This state joins several others in adopting those standards.

The air board's staff warned this week that California could lose 5% to 10% of its gasoline supplies because of increased difficulty in importing so-called finished gas and blended stocks. They proposed increasing the allowable Reid Vapor Pressure -- a measure of evaporation -- from about seven pounds per square inch to nine, meaning more gasoline vapor would escape into the atmosphere from gas tanks and fuel lines.

During Thursday's hearing, Teri Shore of Blue Water Network argued that recent events, including President Bush's move to release oil reserves and a drop in wholesale prices, indicated that board action was unnecessary. "There is no emergency in California to justify weakening of the law," she said.

But Jay McKeeman of the California Independent Oil Marketers Assn. said the livelihood of mom-and-pop gas stations was threatened by the state's gas supply problems. "If conditions get worse, unbranded fuels are the first to disappear from the market," he said. "Our members stand to lose a lot.... It would mean employers would have to lay off employees and curtail their [health] benefits."

By disrupting Gulf Coast supplies, the hurricane has caused about a 10% loss of the nation's oil refining capacity.

Oil companies say that relaxing the evaporation rules will help expand gas supplies. For one thing, chemicals removed from summer gasoline and stored can be blended back into gasoline.

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