April 04, 2007

EPA Bows to Northwest Senators' Concerns on Airborne Benzene

Levels New EPA rule caps levels of the airborne carcinogen nationwide

Washington, D.C. - After months of pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt a standard for airborne benzene that didn't "turn the Northwest into an environmental sacrifice zone," U.S. Senator Ron Wyden announced today that the EPA is instituting a nationwide cap on the amount of benzene in gasoline that will reduce benzene levels in the Northwest threefold. The EPA had previously proposed a rule that could have left levels in the Northwest higher than other parts of the country.

"Today the EPA acknowledged that folks in the Northwest have the same right to breathe clean air as folks in other parts of the country," Wyden said. "I'm very pleased the EPA decided not to turn the Northwest into an environmental sacrifice zone, but instead put in place a sensible nationwide standard that sets a maximum amount of benzene that can be in gasoline."

The EPA's new Mobile Sources Air Toxics rule includes the previously-proposed national standard tied to a pollution credit trading program that will go into effect as originally proposed on January 1, 2011. Wyden and other Northwest Senators were concerned that this provision — if it were a stand alone rule — would not guarantee reductions in Northwestern fuel benzene levels because it would have established a market-based benzene credit banking and trading program that would allow refineries to buy and sell "units of benzene in gasoline" nationally instead of actually reducing the benzene content of each refinery's products. As a result, under the EPA's initial proposal, residents of Oregon and Washington states could have experienced higher exposures to benzene in the air they breathe than residents in any other region of the country.

Addressing the Senators' concerns, the rule promulgated today now also contains a hard cap on benzene levels — a nationwide minimum standard — that can not be met simply by trading pollution credits, meaning that all gas will now have to meet the new minimum nationwide standard by July 1, 2012. To meet that rule, oil companies will have to make physical changes in their refineries and operations to bring their gasoline down to that level; the EPA projects this will cost less than $.01 per gallon of gasoline.

To focus the EPA's attention on the importance of this issue, Wyden placed a hold on the confirmation of the EPA's General Counsel nominee, Roger Martella, last November. He also wrote to the EPA in January, along with U.S. Senators Gordon Smith (R-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Patty Murray (D-WA), urging the EPA to set a minimum nationwide standard.

According to the EPA's own analysis, Northwesterners currently have some of the nation's highest benzene health risks due to high fuel benzene levels. The rule as promulgated today will bring benzene levels down to be on par with other regions in the nation.