On the question of how to lower the sulfur content of gasoline sold in the US, the Clinton administration had a choice. It could have:

On the question of how to lower the sulfur content of gasoline sold in the US, the Clinton administration had a choice. It could have:

A. Adjusted sulfur limits to regional air quality, requiring the lowest-sulfur fuel in areas with the biggest smog problems, allowing greater concentrations of sulfur in fuel sold in areas with no smog, and phasing in the regulation to give refiners time to adjust to the new standards, or...

B. Imposed the strictest sulfur requirements everywhere, as quickly as possible.

The difference between the two options in terms of air quality was negligible. The difference in cost was great, the latter option obviously being the more expensive. In fact, the latter option, by threatening viability of refiners unable to invest heavily in new technology and equipment, might threaten domestic supply of oil products.

Can anyone guess which way the Clinton team went on this decision? (Hint: It's almost 2000, an election year, and Vice Pres. Al Gore, keeper of the Clinton legacy, is churning the radical left hard for support.)

Right! Clinton and his Environmental Protection Agency fire-breathers chose option B, the costlier and more difficult of the two.

The decision essentially phases in California standards for gasoline sulfur nationwide during 2004-2006.

Refiners supported a cut in gasoline sulfur. They recognized that vehicles entering service in 2004 will need lower-sulfur fuel for the higher-efficiency catalytic converters with which they'll be equipped to fight precursors to ozone smog.

Refiners just didn't want to have to cut sulfur by 90% in all gasoline, all at once, everywhere. Doing so will require investment of $3-5 billion and raise gasoline costs by 3-5¢/gal.

The crash program isn't necessary. Ozone smog is a lingering but generally diminishing problem, concentrated around metropolitan areas. There's nothing to be gained by requiring sale of low-sulfur gasoline where smog doesn't form.

The Clinton administration could have accommodated refiners without compromising air quality. It could have targeted sulfur cuts to ozone problem areas and phased them in more gradually without aggravating problems of the asthmatic children on whose behalf it claimed to act.

It chose not to do so. It opted for unnecessary cost.

Clinton announced the new fuel-sulfur limits at what was billed as a "Clean Car Event" Dec. 21 at Maury Elementary School in Washington, DC. To his credit, the president acknowledged that the oil industry cooperated with EPA in development of the standard. He can't be faulted for not also pointing out that EPA ignored most of what the industry said. It would have spoiled the moment.

Swaddled as it was in the administration's trademark promise for what the sulfur choice would do for kids, the announcement could not have taken place in a setting more photogenic than an elementary school.

But an idle refinery would have better expressed the implications.

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