Pennsylvania takes first steps to lower summer gas emission standards

A new Pennsylvania law aims to lighten emission standards on summertime gasoline in Pittsburgh and six surrounding counties. But the measure, approved last week by Gov. Tom Corbett, is just the start of a long process that may or may not lead to cheaper gas in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The law requires Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to free the region of tough summer standards for so-called Reid vapor pressure (RVP).

There is no guarantee the EPA will accept the proposal.

“We can legislate and make laws but we do have to follow this process from the regulatory and the federal standpoint,” said Mike Rader, executive director of the Pennsylvania Senate agriculture and rural affairs committee.

Seven Western Pennsylvania counties — Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland — are the only counties in the state that the EPA requires adhere to the stricter summer standards.

The lower-emission gas costs between 10 and 15 cents per gallon more than regular gasoline, which is why drivers in the Pittsburgh area pay more than others in Pennsylvania. Factor in the state’s gasoline tax, and Pittsburgh drivers typically pay in excess of 20 cents more for a gallon of gas than drivers in neighboring states.

“Everyone agrees that protecting air quality is critically important, however, this legislation demonstrates that in 2014 there may be better, less costly and more efficient means of achieving these standards than those adopted almost 15 years ago,” Patrick Henderson, Pennsylvania’s Energy Executive, said in an email.

The EPA started to set summer fuel requirements following passage of the Clean Air Act in 1990. The EPA had the authority to establish stricter emission standards in any area that previously failed to meet ground-level ozone standards.

Given its industrial past, Pittsburgh fell into that category. It is one of several dozen communities in the United States that was required to follow stricter emission standards.

But Mr. Rader said environmental progress in the area should afford Western Pennsylvania the ability to opt out of stricter fuel standards. Under a law passed during the 2011-12 session of the General Assembly, the DEP conducted an analysis of air quality measures in Western Pennsylvania and concluded the area was not getting credit for certain emission offsets.

“DEP will first carefully evaluate emission reductions that have been approved in recent years from other sources or products that may not have counted toward the state’s implementation plan, before determining if that is sufficient or other measures are necessary,” Mr. Henderson said.

Gasoline by nature has to have an RVP below 14.7 psi. Any higher and it would turn from a liquid to a gas.

Since 1999, the DEP and the EPA have required that gasoline sold between May 1 and Sept. 15 in those seven southwestern Pennsylvania counties have an RVP no higher than 7.8 psi. Elsewhere, the EPA requires that gas sold between May 1 and Sept. 15 have an RVP no higher than 9.0 psi.

The new law — introduced by Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., a Beaver County Republican — would allow Pittsburgh and surrounding counties to use the higher psi. Final authority rests with the federal government, not the state.

In the next 60 days, Pennsylvania’s DEP will begin working with the U.S. EPA to revise Pennsylvania’s implementation plan, something each state must produce for compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“That’s a complicated process,” Mr. Rader said.

The process is could take up to two years. Mr. Henderson said the administration’s goal is that changes will be in place by the 2015 summer driving season.

The Department of Environmental Protection will have to prove to the EPA that an increase in RVP standards in those counties would not harm the air quality. Essentially, Mr. Henderson said, the state is taking RVP standards off its menu and replacing them with a new product — one that also decreases ozone emissions but previously was not counting toward the state improvement plan.

In the past two years alone, the EPA has rejected multiple proposed revisions to state implementation plans, including proposals in Wyoming, Florida and Alabama.

But Mr. Henderson said the Corbett administration is certain Pennsylvania will avoid those states’ fates.

“We believe there is a high confidence that any state implementation plan revisions submitted will be approved, provided they are accompanied with commensurate air quality protections,” he said.

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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