Nearly one-third of U.S. cars won't be ready for 2013 switch to anti-pollution technology

EPA wants to drop vapor recovery at the pump, replace with technology on cars

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Gasoline nozzle at a station in Oakland, Calif. is equipped with anti-pollution technology to capture gasoline vapor so it does not contribute to smog.  Since 2006, all new U.S. cars and light trucks have been manufactured with similar onboard technology. 

 Ben Margot/The Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency wants to stop requiring gasoline stations to install costly anti-pollution systems in 2013 because all vehicles made since 2006 are equipped with similar technology. But the switch means nearly one-third of American cars on the road still won’t have the onboard technology, leaving some smog-producing vapors leaking from the gas pump, according to industry experts.

On Monday, the EPA proposed to give states the option of dropping a requirement that gas stations in smoggy cities install vapor recovery systems to prevent vapors from leaking out of gas pumps. The Obama administration has argued these systems are no longer necessary and dropping the requirement could save gas station owners $67 million each year.

In a May blog on the EPA's website, the Obama administration laid out its case. "In the past, EPA has required gas stations to incorporate vapor controls on their pumps, but today’s generation of vehicles already contain the technology for vapor recovery on the vehicle itself. The requirement for gas pumps has become redundant."

But what the Obama administration didn’t say in its blog was that in some cases, the technology on the pump and on a new vehicle can work together to allow vapors to escape.

The EPA declined to make an agency official available to speak about the issue with iWatch News, despite multiple requests during the past two weeks.

Several industry experts interviewed by iWatch News agreed the EPA proposal is a step in the right direction, but is an awkward solution to a problem created years ago by a clash between two powerful interest groups:  carmakers and the oil industry.

Dr. Wolf Koch, an engineer and expert on fuel recovery systems who has 26 patents in the field, said that in the long term, the change makes a lot of sense. “Removing [a gas station system] is not going to cause problems,” Koch, who formerly managed Amoco Corp.'s business in vapor recovery for nearly 10 years, said. “If anything, it enhances performance and reduces overall emissions.”

Since 1998, the EPA has been phasing in a requirement for vehicles to be equipped with onboard vapor recovery systems, and all new automobiles and light trucks made since 2006 have the technology. Instead of pulling vapor back into the pump, onboard systems pull the vapor into the car’s own fuel tank.

However, Koch said trouble can begin when a motorist fills up a new automobile using both systems simultaneously.

“With the two together, you're worse off than either one by themselves,” he said. The two actions can sometimes cancel each other out and allow emissions to escape.

Some states, like California and Texas, have taken steps to prevent the systems from overlapping, he said. Others have not acted.

The EPA is aware of the issue, Koch said, but has not directly addressed it during the three decades that the agency has been analyzing and regulating fuel vapor.

California started the first vapor recovery program in the 1970s. In 1984, the EPA said a vehicle onboard system was the best method to capture fuel vapor across the country, but the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and carmakers opposed that approach as unsafe for motorists. As an alternative, the EPA decided to require gasoline stations in cities with smog to install the special vapor recovery systems.

A 1998 federal appeals court ruling ordered  the EPA to phase in a program requiring vehicles to have onboard recovery canisters.  

From the start, Koch said, the EPA has been in the middle of a tug-of-war. The auto industry opposed equipping new cars with onboard canisters, while the oil industry and gasoline station owners fought against pump requirements.  “Everybody got their way and the whole thing ended up being a compromise,” said Koch. “Like a camel -- you get two humps.”

The EPA has said that once enough vehicles had onboard systems, it would no longer require vapor recovery at the pump. But because not all American cars on the road are yet equipped with vapor recovery -- and because the pump and onboard systems don’t interact well -- there’s a delicate balance to be maintained. Taking the systems off too early or leaving them on too long could increase emissions.

In 2007, the agency hired Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a non-profit that specializes in air pollution control, to help determine at what point the EPA could stop requiring pump vapor recovery systems. Eric Skelton, a policy analyst on the study, said his team concluded that time would come in 2013.

“Once that widespread use date is achieved, if Stage II systems start to come off, then there's no net emissions increase,” said Skelton.

The new  EPA proposal would set June 30, 2013 as the date “by which a sufficient portion of the vehicle fleet will be equipped” with vapor recovery canisters. “By that date, EPA projects that more than 70 percent of vehicles on the road will have ORVR technology,” the agency said, referring to onboard refueling vapor recovery technologies.

But older vehicles won’t have the vapor recovery system. And if there’s no federal regulation, states won’t be required to maintain or implement gas station systems.

“If somebody's driving an old car that’s not  ORVR equipped,” Skelton said. “And if they're gassing up at a station that's not [equipped with a vapor recovery system], they're gassing up and those vapors are coming out of the fill pipe in their face.”

The proposed change means gasoline station owners should save about $3,000 each year, according to the EPA statement.

But Tim Hamilton, executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, said more has to happen for owners to save on their pump anti-pollution technology.

“The question is -- Is there going to be another political fight on the local level once the EPA gets its nose out of the picture?” Hamilton said.

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