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EPA Drops Oxygenation Requirements for Reformulated Gasoline

In a move authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the EPA is revoking the two percent oxygenation requirement for reformulated gasoline (RFG) nationwide. Currently, about 30% of gasoline is RFG.

Oxygenates are fuel additives (alcohols and ethers) that contain oxygen which can boost gasoline’s octane quality, enhance combustion, and reduce exhaust emissions. Ethanol is one such oxygenate, MTBE is another.

The new rules also revise the current prohibition against combining volatile organic compound (VOC)-controlled RFG blended with ethanol with VOC-controlled RFG blended with other oxygenates. The revision also prohibits combining VOC-controlled RFG blended with ethanol with non-oxygenated VOC-controlled RFG, except in limited circumstances authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Because the compliance date for the removal of the oxygen requirement is different for gasoline sold in California than for gasoline sold in the rest of the country, the EPA published the changes in two rules. One rule removes the oxygen content requirement for RFG sold nationally (effective on May 6, 2006). The other rule removes the oxygen content requirement for RFG sold in California (effective 60 days from publication of the rule).

The original oxygenation rules went into force in 1990 as part of the Clean Air Act, with the stated intent of helping gasoline burn more cleanly.

Critics of the oxygenation rule—including both Republican and Democrat politicians in California—argued that gasoline could be made to burn as cleanly without oxygenates as with it, and that the rules imposed additional cost burdens on producers, and thus on consumers.

The actual impact of the lifting of the regulations appears likely to be low. The Energy Policy Act also imposed a new Renewable Fuel Standard that will keep ratcheting up the amount of ethanol to be used in fuel blends, albeit with much more flexibility than the oxygenation rules allowed.

Furthermore, refiners seem unlikely to walk away from the infrastructure investments made to be able to handle the blends. Additionally, ethanol now serves as a supply extender—remove ethanol from the picture and refiners have to come up with that much more gasoline.

The EPA does not expect the emissions benefits of the RFG program to be reduced as a result of these direct final rules.

The EPA created the RFG to improve air quality by requiring that gasoline be reformulated to reduce motor vehicle emissions of toxic and tropospheric ozone-forming compounds, as prescribed by the Clean Air Act. The Act mandated that reformulated gasoline be sold in the nine largest metropolitan areas with the most severe summertime ozone levels and other ozone nonattainment areas that opt into the program.

It also prohibited conventional gasoline being sold in the rest of the country from becoming any more polluting than it was in 1990. This requirement ensured that refiners do not dump fuel components that are restricted in reformulated gasoline and that cause environmentally harmful emissions into conventional gasoline.

For a gasoline to be certified as reformulated, it had to contain:

  • At least 2.0 wt. % oxygen;
  • No more than 1.0 vol. % benzene;
  • No heavy metals (unless granted a waiver);
  • Result in no increase in NOx emissions; and
  • Achieve required toxics and VOCs emission reductions.



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