State’s clean-burning gas touted by proponents |

State’s clean-burning gas touted by proponents


They call the new generation of fuels cleaner-burning gasolines.

And by some accounts, California’s reformulated gasoline is the cleanest-burning in the nation.

Since its introduction in the spring of 1996, California air-quality officials say reformulated gasoline has reduced air pollution by as much as if 3.5 million cars were taken off the state’s highways.

While some critics have questioned the effectiveness of oxygenated gasoline, the state of California has moved beyond the initial premise that, by adding oxygen to gasoline, you could make it burn more thoroughly, and as a result, more cleanly.

The presence of oxygen-rich compounds, such as methyl tertiary butyl ether – MTBE – and ethanol, is one of just eight specifications of the state’s reformulated gasoline, explained Allan Hirsch, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

Besides the presence of an oxygenated additive, California gasoline now has less sulfur, benzene, aromatic hydrocarbons and olefins, all of which have been implicated in air pollution. At the same time, the gasoline is designed to have a lower evaporation pressure and distillation temperature.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that carbon monoxide levels dropped 10 percent nationwide in 1995, attributing the decline to the introduction of oxygenated fuels.

In California, the state Environmental Protection Agency credited the use of reformulated gasoline with pushing smog levels to their lowest in decades in 1996.

“It would have taken several years for our ongoing air-quality measures to match what cleaner-burning gasoline accomplished in a few months,” said John D. Dunlap, the chairman of the state Air Resources Board.

After accounting for weather variations, the California EPA estimated that the designer fuel accounted for a 15-percent drop in emissions that lead to the formation of ozone.

Despite the good news, some critics question the usefulness of oxygenated additives like MTBE and ethanol.

One unexpected source of criticism was the editor of the Oil and Gas Journal, a Texas-based magazine that has reported on the oil industry since 1910.

In a May 12, 1996 editorial, the magazine stated that research suggests that oxygen additives by themselves increase certain undesirable emissions even as it reduces carbon monoxide.

The magazine also suggested that the benefits of oxygenated additives are reduced in newer cars, and that the modernization of the American vehicle fleet has accounted for most of the nation’s reduction of emissions.

Whatever the benefits, they come at a cost of between 1 and 2 percent reduction in gasoline mileage, and at an increased cost to consumers of five cents or more. And it is the oil industry’s decision whether to use MTBE, manufactured from oil and gas, or an alternative additive like ethanol, which is derived from agricultural crops.

One critic of MTBE, medical researcher Myron Mehlman, said the industry is wedded to MTBE because of the greater profits it represents.

“Every penny of extra cost in a gallon of gasoline equals $1.2 billion a year in greater revenues,” Mehlman said. “MTBE has become so profitable it has a tremendous advantage to the oil industry.”

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