WASHINGTON -- By calling for cleaner gasoline to help reduce tailpipe emissions, automakers again have put themselves on a collision course with the oil industry.
Regulators at the EPA could propose new national standards next year modeled after California's updated Low Emission Vehicle rules, which are scheduled to phase in from the 2015 through 2025 model years and would require major cuts in air pollution.
Automakers say they are willing to follow California rules across the United States.
That would spare the car companies from having to start selling vehicles with different emission controls in California and the 12 other states, such as New York, plus the District of Columbia that follow California's tailpipe rules. And automakers say it could lighten the current burden of certifying all vehicles twice -- once to satisfy the EPA and again to sell a car in California.
But there's a catch, and it points toward another bitter battle between automakers and the oil industry over the amount of sulfur in fuel. To meet California standards nationwide, automakers say, the sulfur content of gasoline must drop. Refiners balk at the cost and say proponents of the change haven't made their case.
The cost of meeting the tougher standards nationwide would be about $150 per vehicle, according to an analysis commissioned by state regulators.
"We'd like to see lower sulfur. That's important to meeting the goal of cleaner emissions," Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told Automotive News last week. "We're going to be pushing that in Washington."
The alliance wants the Obama administration to lower the cap on sulfur in gasoline to 10 parts per million, down from 30 parts per million now.
But upgrading a refinery can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the oil industry, a potent political force in Washington, doesn't want to pay.