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The Paradox of the EPA's Clean Fuel Rules

The EPA's newly proposed rules to reduce sulfur in gasoline may have the perverse effect of making alternative vehicles, that is, those that don't run on gasoline, less competitive with conventional vehicles and ensure that we remain addicted to oil.
April 8, 2013, 10am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Matthew Wald explains the arcane nature of the new EPA rules and their effect on tomorrow's motor vehicles. The good news is that conventional vehicles burning gasoline will become more efficient; the bad news is that the rule will "likely help the conventional automobile survive against competition from vehicles powered by electricity, natural gas and other cleaner alternatives."

Is a leaner, gas-sipping auto the best way to go, even if it means crowding out vehicles that don't burn any gasoline?

THE Environmental Protection Agency’s latest proposed tightening of limits on sulfur in gasoline, and its previous rules, will most likely have the perverse consequence of retarding the development of cars running on batteries, advanced biofuels or hydrogen — all promising but expensive technologies that have not become mass-market products.

The thrust of the Tier 3 rules are to protect the catalytic converter from the destructive aspect of sulfur. But it's effects may be further reaching. But it's not solely the Tier 3 rules - it's the fuel efficiency requirement, also referred to as CAFE standard, that drove them and may prevent alternatives from getting a wider foothold.

Obscured by all the numbers is that the various technologies promoted as alternatives to gasoline — batteries, fuel cells or natural gas — are now facing a refined internal combustion engine. The federal government in large part drove automakers toward engine improvements by requiring them to essentially double fuel efficiency by 2025.

However, many in the environmental community dispute the assertion that the more efficient internal combustion engine represents a threat to alternative vehicles.

At the Union of Concerned ScientistsDavid Friedman, deputy director of the clean vehicles program, said that the Tier 3 proposal was a sign of success driven by the alternatives. “There is a long history of exactly this happening,” he said, recalling that when methanol was being promoted as a cleaner fuel the oil companies said, “'Hey, we can clean up our fuel, too.''’

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Published on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 in The New York Times - Energy & Environment
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