The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Cleaner Fuels for Cleaner Air

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted November 5, 2015

To a large degree, cleaner air in the United States results from innovations and improvements in transportation fuels over the past four decades. This is important, because the freedom to travel has been ingrained in the American psyche since the days when waves of westward migration began spanning the continent.

Today, Americans are used to free and independent movement, with the average person traveling more than 13,600 miles a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, Americans’ modern lifestyles depend on freight haulers that deliver commercial goods to the places where they live. The 4 million miles of highways and roads that make up a large portion of the U.S. transportation network serve as the country’s arterial system – and energy makes it go. Refineries supply more than 130 billion gallons of gasoline and 60 billion gallons of diesel a year to power trucks, barges, ships and trains connecting consumers with consumable goods.

The oil and natural gas industry is meeting the challenge of fueling America’s transportation needs while advancing air quality goals that benefit all Americans – by investing in cleaner, safer fuels and next-generation technologies for the future. These refining sector investments have made it possible for Americans to depend on the gasoline and other fuels, as well as all of the products derived from refined petroleum, that make everyday life possible. A snapshot:

  • In all, the U.S. oil and natural gas industry invested about $284 billion over the same time period to improve the environmental performance of its products, facilities and operations.
  • U.S. refiners invested $149 billion in new technologies, cleaner fuels and various environmental initiatives between 1990 and 2013, including $14.6 billion in 2013 alone.
  • These refinery investments have played a role in bring down aggregate emissions of six common pollutants 68 percent between 1970 and 2013 – even as GDP and vehicle miles traveled climbed significantly (EPA chart):

indicators


Industry’s ongoing work to make fuels cleaner and better for the environment rests on the shoulders of air quality policy decisions and technological advances that started with the introduction of lead-free gasoline in 1975 – followed by a number of enhancements to the quality of gasoline including vapor pressure reductions, the addition of oxygenates, two iterations of reformulated gasoline, Tier 2 low-sulfur gasoline (2004) and ultra-low sulfur diesel in 2006. In addition, fuels have become more complex, with refiners now required to provide nearly 20 different types of gasoline formulations to meet federal clean-air standards in different parts of the country.

Beginning in 2017 new requirements for lowering sulfur levels in gasoline will go into effect under EPA’s Tier 3 regulation. Refiners likely will invest upwards of $9.8 billion in more hydroprocessing technology to meet Tier 3 gasoline and diesel fuel specifications. A Baker & O’Brien study notes:

“Applying the methodology and criteria described in the Original Report, an estimate of the most likely compliance response decisions was made for each refinery … Twenty-three refineries would need to upgrade fluid catalytic cracker (FCC) feed hydrotreaters, one refinery would require installation of anew FCC feed hydrotreater, thirteen refineries would need to install new FCC gasoline hydrotreaters, and thirty-three refineries would need to expand or upgrade their existing FCC gasoline hydrotreaters.”

The result is that a new car using Tier 3 gasoline and equipped with the most advanced emissions reduction technology will produce 99 percent fewer emissions than a new 1970 vehicle. A new generation of such vehicles will reduce nitrogen oxide and volatile organic carbon emissions, key precursor to smog, by more than 328,000 tons and 167,000 tons, respectively, in 2030. This is equivalent to taking 64 million cars off the road. By 2050, when all vehicles in operation will have fully turned over to those meeting the fully phased-in Tier 3 vehicle emissions and fuel standards, on-road emissions will have dropped by about 30 percent, EPA estimates. The investments by refineries to makes these new fuels – Tier 3 and ultra-low sulfur diesel – provide opportunities for auto manufacturers to use new technology to make emissions from vehicles even cleaner.

In addition, industry members are developing technologies that help promote greater energy efficiency, which is part of realizing air-quality goals. For example, BP has developed engine lubricants that “change the way engine oil behaves under extreme pressure, reducing friction by up to 15%.” These and other innovations are part of improving the way fuels and products work cleaner and better.

Going forward, industry’s record of technological innovation to make fuels cleaner and the fact that air quality is better and continues to improve should be acknowledged by regulators. “Refineries and their products are already heavily regulated,” said API senior policy advisor Patrick Kelly. “These regulations are contributing to a cleaner environment and safer workplace.”

Unnecessary, inefficient and costly new requirements could hamper the refining sector’s ability to provide and distribute fuels to America. Howard Feldman, API senior director of regulatory and scientific affairs:

“EPA has an important public trust to keep: protecting the environment. We understand that, and we understand the need to have regulations. Over the years, we have spent bazillions complying with them, and there have been some real environmental improvements. But the agency also has a duty and responsibility to be guided by common sense and science … We need an EPA that understands the needs of the environment and the American consumer.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.