New Rules from Federal EPA Could Help Clear the Smog That’s Choking New Jersey

The tougher standards restrict the amount of sulfur emitted by cars and trucks, potentially saving 2,000 lives a year, according to agency

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The Obama administration yesterday adopted tougher rules to curb air pollution from cars and trucks, a step that may help New Jersey deal with its most pervasive air quality problem — the smog that blankets the state during hot summer days.

The new standards, once in place, will help avoid up to 2,000 premature deaths per year and 50,000 cases of respiratory ailments in children nationwide, according to officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which wrapped up the rules after extensive comments from the public and industry.

Backed by environmental groups and many auto manufacturers, the rules are designed to reduce sulfur levels in gasoline by more than 60 percent. Curtailing sulfur in fuel will cut smog-forming pollution by 260,000 tons by 2018 year — the equivalent of removing 33 million cars from the road. The rules take effect in 2017.

New Jersey has never met the federal health-quality standards for ground-level ozone, or smog, which is caused by a mix of contaminants from factories, vehicles, and other sources baking in the atmosphere on hot summer days.

Beyond reducing pollutants that contribute to smog, the new rules also will curb soot and toxic substances, such as benzene, a known carcinogen, from tailpipe emissions of cars and trucks, according to the agency.

“These standards are a win for public health, a win for our environment, and a win for our pocketbooks,’’ said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in a press release issued by the agency. “By working with the auto industry, health groups, and other stakeholders, we’re continuing to build on the Obama administration’s broader clean fuels and vehicles efforts that cut carbon pollution, clean the air we breathe, and save families money at the pump.’’

The rules, however, were opposed by the oil industry, which argued it could increase the cost of gasoline to motorists from 6 cents to 9 cents per gallon, much larger than the EPA projection of less than 1 cent per gallon. EPA officials said the oil industry estimate was based on earlier drafts of the rule.

“It really has the potential to deliver a significant punch to our economy and consumers,’’ said Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council in Trenton. “It’s a real challenge for the Northeast refineries.’’

Those refineries have had trouble complying with increasing environmental mandates, Benton said. “It’s a steady stream of regulations,’’ he noted. Nationwide, the industry projects it will require about $12 billion in capital investments to comply with the new rules, according to Benton.

As recently as 2009, there were six refineries in New Jersey. That dropped to four in 2013. Now, there are only two, the Bayway Refinery in Linden along the New Jersey Turnpike and the PBF Refinery in Paulsboro along the Delaware River.

The state already has adopted tougher regulations to require refineries to reduce the amount of sulfur in home heating oil. The effect of the rule, however, was delayed one year by the Christie administration from July 2014 to July 2015.

The delay did not prevent Hess Corp., which opposed the new rules, from closing its refinery early last year in Port Reading, Woodbridge Township. The company was facing a $45 million upgrade to install more sophisticated pollution controls at the facility.

The auto industry supported the rule, mostly because it would establish a single, nationwide standard for the sector to achieve. By 2025, the new standard will increase average cost of a vehicle by $72, according to the EPA.

“EPA has harmonized state and federal emission standards,’’ noted Mike Robinson, a vice president of the General Motors Co. in a teleconference with the agency. “It is one set of standards nationwide.’’

“Low sulfur (in fuels and other petroleum products) is a good thing all around,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s a very good thing for New Jersey and a very good thing for the region.’’