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Will Utah Air Quality board sign off on federal pollution rules?

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says revamping fuel and vehicle standards to a higher level of emissions reductions would cost motorists just a penny more per gallon of gas and about $134 per vehicle.

Advocates say it is the most effective way of zapping harmful air pollutants, and overnight, it would be the equivalent of taking 33 million vehicles off the nation’s highways.

Do Utah, and particularly the Wasatch Front, think the price is worth it, given that its winter air this year was ranked the dirtiest in the country?

In a Wednesday vote by the Utah Division of Air Quality, board members signed off on “maybe” — signaling support of the standard, but expressing a desire to revamp a draft letter to be sent to the EPA.

Two board members, Karma Thomson and Tammie G. Lucero, voted against endorsing the standard, which would not go into effect until 2017 and be phased in over several years.

Despite EPA touting its benefits to public health, cleaning up winter gunk and reducing summer smog, some board members questioned the impact along the Wasatch Front and its cost to consumers and refineries.

The standard, which would require a two thirds reduction in the sulfur content of gasoline and bigger catalytic converters, would also phase in heat pumps to avoid “cold start” emission releases.

But the refinery industry has come out against the proposed standard, arguing that it will cost 8 or 9 cents more per gallon and force costly upgrades to refine gasoline to further remove sulfur.

Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, said it was premature for the board to take a position, given the uncertainty of how those impacts would play out in Utah.

Because Wasatch Front refineries would fall into the category of the smallest producers and would be given flexibility and extra time to spread out the costs, refinery changes in the Salt Lake metropolitan area would not have to come online until 2020, he said.

“It would have very little impact on air quality in Utah, at least in the short term,” Peacock said.

But division staff argued that the new technology on cars would represent a giant leap in the fight against Utah’s air pollution, regardless of how long it takes refineries to phase in the lower sulfur gasoline.

“The reason this is important for the state of Utah, and we have heard it said many times, the mobile sector is the biggest source of pollution in this state,” said Joe Thomas, an environmental scientist with the division.

The board’s action comes after Utah Division of Air Quality staff was asked in May to render an analysis of what’s called the Tier 3 standard, which the EPA has put out for public comment until July 1.

Bryce Bird, division director, said the proposed standard would help address the tailpipe problem of motor vehicles in Utah because the state is preempted from setting vehicle emission standards.

As proposed, the Tier 3 standard would affect in 2017 model vehicles and be phased in through 2025, replicating low sulfur standards already in effect in California, Europe, South Korea and Japan.

Touted by the EPA as one of the most effective air pollution control measures available, the new standard would reduce tailpipe emissions for certain pollutants by as much as 80 percent. It would also eliminate automobile manufacturers from having to make a "California car" and a "rest of the country" car. Several other states are moving independently to embrace the new requirements, Thomas said.

The National Association of Clean Air Agencies representing 43 states and 116 metropolitan areas is also on board with the proposed regulations.

“We know of no other single air pollution control strategy that can provide emissions reductions as significant and immediate as this,” the association said in support of the proposed standard. Utah is a member state of that association.

The group added that failure to go after the tailpipe emissions will force public agencies grappling with the pollution problem to turn to more expensive and less cost effective measures such as levying additional controls on mom and pop businesses.

“Reducing emissions that cause air pollution is a zero sum game. Missed reduction opportunities from one source category mean reductions will need to come from another,” according to the association.

HEAL Utah, which pushed the board to support the proposed standard, said tighter regulations on fuel and vehicle technology will significantly help the state get a handle on its nagging air quality problem.

“These will be critical cuts for Utah, where vehicle emissions are an estimated 57 percent of the cause of wintertime smog,” said HEAL’s policy director Matt Pancenza.

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