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THERE IS recent news that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will require cleaner gasoline nationwide (see, for example, http://goo.gl/s5Tc4). As is often the case with such news, it profits from amplification—and clarification. The implications of EPA’s proposed Tier 3 gasolines aren’t as bad as some may think. Nor are they as trivial as others claim. Plus, any changes aren’t exactly right around the corner.
If you drive in California, consider it business as usual. This state already has what it terms Phase 3 Reformulated Gasoline. Phase 1, implemented way back in 1992, eliminated lead. Phase 2, promulgated in 1996, set standards for sulfur, oxygen, aromatics, benzene and other hydrocarbons.
California’s Phase 3 Reformulated Gasoline, dating from 1999, eliminated methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether; MTBE, proposed as a fuel oxygenate, proved in retrospect to have serious tradeoffs.
Today’s California Phase 3 gasoline differs from 49-state counterparts primarily in its ultra-low sulfur, limited to less than 10 parts per million. Nationally, 30 ppm is the norm; not long ago, it was 300 ppm.
The European Union has required sulfur levels less than 10 ppm since 2009. (See http://goo.gl/mZ6cf for world rankings in this regard.) Because of this, some advanced European automotive technology is considered incompatible with typical U.S. gasolines.
Ultra-low-sulfur gasoline is beneficial for optimized catalytic conversion of NOX, especially with modern engines operating in efficient lean-burn regimes. EPA’s proposal is to extend this benefit across the nation.
This would be particularly fitting to the 14 other states that have already adopted California vehicle emissions standards.
Specifically, these are the western states of Washington, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico, and the entire northeast, from Pennsylvania and Maryland north, sans New Hampshire.
Hitherto, drivers in these states were getting the cars—but not the fuel—optimized for California emissions standards. In time, EPA’s proposed rule-making could rectify this.
In time? Yes. Despite all the recent hubbub, a critical step has yet to occur: publication of the proposal rule-making in the Federal Register. This is expected soon, but then it’s followed by a Comment Period that could extend to 180 days. And, in any case, EPA’s Tier 3 gasoline standards have 2017 as a target date.
Cost implications of these depend on whom you believe. The EPA says cost at the pump would rise less than 1¢/gal. The American Petroleum Institute says Tier 3 would increase pump prices by 6¢-9¢/gal. Others have said 10¢-25¢/gal.
Given that California already has its own analogous Phase 3 Reformulated Gasoline, you’d think its current prices would give an indication of what the rest of the country could expect. Today, a brief sampling in Orange County, California, showed gasolines in the range of $4.10 to $4.50 per gal., for self-serve Regular to top-priced Premium. What’s it like where you live?
However, things aren’t simple. In general, gasoline comes as close as any commercial product to vagaries of supply and demand, yet there are plenty of other influences. A critical one is refinery sourcing of its crude inputs—and the nature of these crudes.
The key element is sulfur, the “brimstone” of classic lore and found, to one extent or another, in all crude oil. Some of the world’s “sweetest” crudes—i.e., those lowest in sulfur—come from Nigeria (the home of Bonny Light crude), the North Sea and the Bakken Formation of Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. Some of the world’s most “sour” crudes come from regions bordering the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela and much of the Middle East.
Sulfur can be removed through the refining process, but this comes at added cost. What’s more, refineries need to be optimized for this; older ones would need refitting to produce ultra-low-sulfur gasoline.
Thus far, producers have been juggling crude sources with refinery capabilities with regulatory and marketing demands. This juggling act may well become a more complex one. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013