Summer Gas Blend May be Gone for Good

Jan 20, 2012

Two state senators hope to make gasoline cheaper in Western Pennsylvania by getting rid of a rule that forces gas stations to sell low-emission fuel during the summer months.

Since 1999, the EPA has required gas stations in the 7-county Pittsburgh metropolitan area to sell a blend of gasoline with a low vapor pressure that reduces emissions and curbs air pollution between May 1 and September 15. That is when ground-level ozone concentrations are highest. Gasoline sold during this time must have a Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) of 7.8 pounds per square inch. Regular gasoline has an RVP of 9.0 psi.

The EPA rule is imposed in select metropolitan areas across the country where particularly heavy air pollution is recorded. Because relatively few cities need to use it, the gas is not produced on a large scale and is therefore susceptible to volatile price fluctuations and fuel shortages, as was seen in the region last May.

"It generally costs about 5 to 15 cents more per gallon to get that blend to us," said Senator Tim Solobay, who co-wrote the bill with Senator Elder Vogel. The lawmakers estimate using the blend this summer could cost customers $100 million more than regular gas.

The senators drafted the bill this year after learning three of the region's largest summer blend suppliers are closing, meaning the gas will be even more expensive and in even shorter supply.

"We've heard rumors that by Memorial Day gas could be up to $4 a gallon and by the end of summer we could be up to $5 a gallon," Solobay said, citing numbers suplied by petroleum lobbying groups in Harrisburg.

Further, lawmakers argue that the 15-year-old rule is unnecessary, because it was made to regulate inefficient technology in the automobile industry that is no longer being used.

"Car manufacturers, about 12 years ago, made it a standard to put in a recovery system to help with the release of fumes. Technology in our vehicles has replaced the need for this summer blend," Solobay said.

In a letter to the EPA last May, DEP Secretary Michael Krancer requested the rule be lifted temporarily during a gas shortage. He said he believed the temporary action would have no negative consequences for the health of residents in southwestern Pennsylvania, but he made no comment regarding the effects a permanent lift. The EPA denied the request.

Senator Vogel said the federal government caps the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be released but allows the state DEP to create a state implementation plan to regulate a variety of industries and meet those overall goals.

"There's a number of ways we can reach these targets, one being VOC reductions from vehicles. Others could be in-home emissions from heating systems, low-VOC paint, everything. Our hopes are that the DEP will revise their state implementation plan and that it will not include a mandate for RVP gas in Western PA," Vogel said.

The Vogel/Solobay bill would call on the Pennsylvania DEP to draw up a new set of standards to reduce VOCs that does not include the use of low RVP gasoline.