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Tech Talk: Stricter emissions rules on way

Canadian government is committed to harmonized standards

Published April 5, 2013

For the past several years, on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, the governments’ regulatory focus has been fixed on reducing vehicle fuel consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are effectively one and the same thing.

So much so that observers could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve reached a plateau in terms of regulations on other types of emissions.

That, having already reduced exhaust emissions by 99 per cent, we’ve long-passed the point of diminishing returns with respect to the cost-effectiveness of ever-tightening standards.

If that’s what they thought, they were wrong.

Now that fuel consumption standards have been substantially defined through model-year 2025, regulators have turned their attention back to exhaust and other forms of emissions.

Late last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) served notice that it plans a further dramatic tightening of vehicle emissions standards over the period 2017-2025 — elevating current “Tier 2” regulations to a new “Tier 3” level.

According to EPA estimates, meeting the proposed new standards will add an average of about $130 (U.S.) to the (production) cost of a new vehicle in 2025.

Why does what the Americans are doing matter to us? Because the Canadian government is committed to harmonized standards between the two countries for such matters, so what goes down there will go down here as well.

North American vehicle emissions regulations are already the toughest in the world (save for some even-more stringent requirements established by the State of California).

Fortunately, from the automakers’ perspective, they’ll get some help in meeting the even-tougher regulations, in the form of new controls on the amount of sulphur allowed in gasoline.

Sulphur in gasoline and subsequently in an engine’s exhaust gases, has the effect of poisoning catalytic converters and diminishing the efficiency of other emissions-control devices and systems, particularly as they age.

So reducing sulphur levels will make the vehicle engineers’ challenge in meeting the new targets somewhat easier — not least because they must certify some aspects of a vehicle’s emission performance for up to 193,000 km of use, not just when it’s new.

For that reason, rather than opposing the tighter regulations as they’ve done in the past, the automakers are generally supportive of the EPA’s proposed changes.

Specifically, the new standards will reduce gasoline sulphur levels by more than 60 per cent — from 30 parts per million (ppm) to 10 ppm in 2017.

The EPA reduced the allowable sulphur level from 300 to 30 ppm in 1999 and Canada followed suit. The allowable level is already 10 ppm or lower in California, the European Union, Japan and South Korea.

In a statement on the proposed new standards, the U.S.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (Auto Alliance) said: “For future progress, our advanced emission control technologies that are necessary to meet the challenging 2017-2025 greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards will require cleaner, low-sulphur fuels similar to those available today in Europe and Asia.”

The Alliance acts as a common voice in North America for 12 vehicle manufacturers: BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.

An added benefit of reducing sulphur levels in gasoline is that it will have a positive effect on the emissions of all gasoline vehicles in use, not just new ones.

There’s also the political and very practical benefit of harmonizing the federal requirements with those already established by California for 2017 and beyond, thus letting manufacturers build and sell the same vehicles in all 50 states and Canada.

According to the EPA, its proposal will prevent up to 2,400 premature deaths per year, as well as 23,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children, in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, the petroleum industry is less enthusiastic about the proposed changes.

Citing “a tsunami of federal regulations coming out of the EPA that could put upward pressure on gasoline prices,” Bob Greco, downstream group director for the American Petroleum Institute, said: “The proposed Tier 3 fuel regulations could raise refiners’ costs, provide little or no environmental benefit, and actually increase carbon emissions.”

He predicted a gasoline cost increase in the range of 2 to 7 cents per litre, depending on final details of the new standards.

The API is a (U.S.) national trade association that represents over 500 members of America’s oil and natural gas industry.

At this stage the EPA proposal is just that — a proposal. It still has to go through a public comment stage before actual rule making.

But expect something close to this proposal to take effect in 2017.

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