The auto and oil industries are locking horns again about the sulfur content in gasoline, and it is time for the federal EPA to step in and make the oil refiners toe the mark.
The sulfur situation is moving to the fore because of the Tier 2 EPA standards, which the agency will announce soon. They are to be effective in 2004. The auto people want a sulfur limit of 80 parts per million, with a national average of about 30 ppm. The auto industry is unlikely to get that stringent a rule.
The oil industry proposes 150 ppm in 22 Eastern states. A standard that lenient is just as unlikely as the auto industry's request for 30 ppm.
California, with its own set of air-quality rules, already has gasoline with a sulfur content of 30 to 40 ppm; in the rest of the United States, it is about 339 ppm.
The oil refiners insist that one-size-fits-all gasoline would be unnecessarily expensive, especially for people who live where air pollution is not a problem. The automakers, backed by environmental groups (how's that for strange bedfellows?) counter that sulfur in gasoline makes current vehicles pollute more than they should.
The makers also argue that sulfur will make it more difficult or even impossible to meet future clean-air standards. That's because sulfur coats the interior surfaces of catalytic converters and limits their effectiveness. That is especially true in the more exotic converters that are being developed.
This is more than just a clash of wills among industrial giants. Sulfur must be reduced sharply, and the EPA needs to set a timetable. The EPA must order the oil industry to get on with the job.