ANNAPOLIS Environmentalists and proponents of air pollution control are facing off against petroleum industry representatives over proposed legislation to reduce sulfur in gasoline in Maryland.
During both House and Senate hearings this week, opponents argued that the legislation would isolate Maryland and create supply problems that could increase gas prices for motorists in the state.
Supporters contended that if Maryland does not reduce its motor vehicle emissions now, it will have to pay more later to meet air quality standards.
Meeting future federal clean-air standards, proponents of the legislation say, could mean Maryland would have to impose curbs on industry, not just vehicles. Consumers could get hit with pass-along costs.
The proposed bill would limit the concentration of sulfur in gasoline sold in Maryland to an average of 30 parts per million, beginning Oct. 1, 2002. The current national average is about 330 ppm.
Environmentalists and air pollution control agencies say sulfur is a major contributor to air quality and health problems.
The emissions reductions would be like taking about 800,000 vehicles off the road in the state, according to S. William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.
“This is vital in light of the fact that Maryland’s citizens were exposed to unhealthful levels of pollutants two out of every five days last summer,” he said.
Exposure to relatively low levels of sulfur dioxide for as little as five minutes can cause breathing problems for people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, said Molly Fairbanks, an environmental specialist with the American Lung Association of Maryland.
Representatives from the oil industry did not argue with the need to protect air quality. They said they were concerned that creating a so-called boutique fuel, specific to one state, would create supply and distribution problems and drive competition out of Maryland, opening the door to higher prices.
“It doesn’t make sense to do it in one state,” said Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council. “If there are problems or changes, there’s nowhere else to go to get fuel. There’s less supply.”
A significant number of Maryland motorists cross the state line to tank up on cheaper gas in Virginia, where the price per gallon is generally 5 cents less than in Maryland, said Lon Anderson, spokesman for the American Automobile Association Club of Maryland.
“Motorists are mobile and will go elsewhere,” he said. “We’re sensitive to policies that ultimately penalize motorists in Maryland.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is considering a reduction in the amount of sulfur in gasoline and could have a proposal within the next few months.
The oil industry says it supports a 50 percent reduction in sulfur in gasoline, bringing the content to 150 ppm, and says it would be difficult to meet a 30 ppm level by the bill’s recommended deadline of 2002.
The nationwide investment to make a fuel with a 30 ppm sulfur level would cost the oil industry $5 billion to $6 billion, Cobbs said. The petroleum industry argues that smaller refineries may choose not to make the investment and could drop out of the local market.
But Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, one of the bill’s sponsors, is not convinced that would happen.
Smaller businesses “wouldn’t close down before raising the price to the customer,” the senator said. “Any void would be filled. There’d be no shortage of demand.”
Pinsky said the oil industry has the money to invest but is opting to wait until the EPA makes its decision.
“They’ll delay as long as possible,” he said. They see “the need for reducing sulfur but they don’t want to move that fast.”
Pinsky said that if Maryland does not cut its emissions to a certain level, it could face sanctions, such as reduced highway funding.
“I have to look at air quality,” Pinsky said. “If it’s not done through automobiles, it will have to be done through factories or small businesses and people will pay for it in an even bigger way.”
Getting the bill passed will be tough, he said.
“Anytime you’re going against a big industry, it’s an uphill battle,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be won.”