Rick Flagan is a professor of chemical engineering at Cal Tech in Pasadena. In front of his office he has a beautiful view of the mountains a few miles away. But it hasn't always been that way. "When I first came here there were months when you could not see the mountains. It's a dramatic change," says Flagan.
Flagan says what changed were emissions from power plants that burned high sulfur fuels. Eventually those plants switched to fuels with less sulfur, which reduced smog and improved air quality significantly.
The EPA announced today that it wants to follow a similar path and reduce sulfur emissions in gasoline by two-thirds. According to the EPA, the reduction in air pollution could save as many as 2,400 lives and prevent 23,000 cases of respiratory illness in children per year.
But reducing sulfur levels in gasoline will come at a cost to refineries. The American Petroleum Institute says it would add nine cents to the price of every gallon of gas. The EPA has its own estimate. It says it would cost less than a penny.
"I know there is a sense out there that the industry is crying wolf. I would say that they are probably crying wolf puppy," says Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst with Gas Buddy. "At any moment, that puppy can turn into a wolf if the right conditions prevail, and we really have no way of knowing what sort of conditions are going to be around in 2017."
It's nearly impossible to predict the price of gas that far into the future. And if the cost of cleaner gas does add nine cents to the price of a gallon it doesn't necessarily mean people will pay more at the pump. It could spur changes in people's driving habits. They might drive less or buy a more fuel efficient car. But even that isn't always a given.
"One might think that after the most expensive year on record people would move down to more efficient vehicles. But they haven't," says Kloza.
The top two selling vehicles of 2012 were both full-size pickups.
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