As recently as the early 1990s, the nation's gasoline supply was fungible. The same regular, mid-grade, and premium fuel was sold from coast to coast. But today, we have a bewildering variety of gasoline recipes in use across the country. Each of these specialized blends was designed to help clean the air, but the decade-old track record for the experiment in boutique fuels indicates that it has done more economic harm than environmental good. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Nobody even knows for certain how many different gasoline blends are in use at any given time. AAA has put the number at "more than 15." One pipeline operator says it has to cope with 38 types of gasoline, many of which have to be shipped on a segregated basis. Sen. John Kerry has made a campaign promise to simplify the "more than 300 local and state fuel regulations in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />U.S."
This balkanization of the nation's fuel supply was kicked off by the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which took effect a few years later. Among other things, the feds mandated something called reformulated gasoline (RFG) for metropolitan areas with the highest levels of ozone, the primary constituent of smog. RFG comes in several varieties and now comprises a third of the nation's fuel supply. Even conventional gas was hit with requirements that vary with geographic location and time of year.
State governments have come up with fuels of their own. Those with counties out of compliance with the federal air quality standard for ozone, but not required to use RFG, nonetheless had to do something to secure EPA approval for their smog-fighting plans. Some of these states created their own unique blends, more stringent than conventional gas but less so than RFG. And, with a tough new federal smog standard coming into effect this year, the pressure on some states to switch from conventional gasoline to something else may increase.
The result has been more varieties of gas than we can confidently count. A driver traveling just a few hundred miles through the upper Midwest may encounter as many as six such federal and state-mandated fuel types.
Each of these blends costs at least a little more to make than conventional gasoline. Most expensive is RFG, which currently averages 12 cents more than conventional gas—due to higher production costs and other factors. Furthermore, the logistical burden of having to separately refine, store, and ship these fuels adds to costs and has increased the incidence of localized shortages and price spikes. Though the relatively high price of oil is the main reason for the gas price spike of 2004, the regulatory burden—which continues to grow—has made a bad situation worse.
Some of these fuel measures have helped reduce vehicle emissions, while others have not, but clearly the overall contribution to air quality has been disappointing. A National Academy of Sciences report concluded that "[a]lthough long-term trends in peak ozone in the United States appear to be downward, it is not certain that any part of these trends can be significantly attributed to the use of RFG." Indeed, the progress in reducing vehicle pollution was just as rapid in the decade before these boutique fuels were introduced than in the decade since.
Looking ahead, these specialized fuel recipes make even less sense. Studies have shown that fleet turnover, from older and dirtier vehicles to cleaner new ones, has a considerably greater overall impact on emissions than fuel changes. And new federal vehicle standards, which apply to every car and truck and will be phased in over the next several years, ensure that emissions will continue to decline for decades to come. Under these standards, a typical new vehicle, operating on any fuel, will produce 70 to 90 percent less pollution than the one it replaces. As vehicles get cleaner, the already-modest performance difference between conventional gas and specialized blends diminishes further.
Legally and politically, it has proven difficult to end or even reduce the proliferation of clean fuel requirements. But it is worthwhile to try, because these costly specialized blends have done little to clean the air, and will do even less in the years to come.