Public health groups and automakers cheered the new rules, finalized Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency, with some insisting they could prove to be President Barack Obama's signature environmental accomplishment in his second term. The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, panned the move, calling it gratuitous and accusing the government of grossly underestimating the increased cost at the pump.
"The benefits far outweigh the costs," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, calling it a win for both consumers and automakers. "These standards will reduce pollution, they'll clean the air we breathe and protect the health of American families."
In the works for years, the rules require refineries to cut sulfur levels in the gasoline by about two-thirds by 2017. Less sulfur in gasoline makes it easier for a car's pollution controls to effectively filter out emissions, resulting in cleaner air, the EPA says. For car manufacturers, stricter limits on tailpipe emissions will require engineering changes so that cars weed out more pollution.
More than 2,000 premature deaths and about 50,000 cases of kids with respiratory problems will be avoided by 2030 if the rules go into effect, the EPA said.
The cost to consumers: Less than a penny per gallon of gas, McCarthy said. The EPA also projects the rules will raise the average cost of buying a vehicle by $72 in 2025.
But not everyone agrees.
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil and gas industry, pointed to studies it has commissioned estimating that the limits would add 6 cents to 9 cents a gallon to refiners' manufacturing costs while requiring $10 billion in capital costs. American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group, called it "the most recent example of the agency's propensity for illogical and counterproductive rulemaking."
"This rule is all pain and no gain," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. "This winter's cold snap underscores just how vulnerable American families and businesses are to any increases in energy costs, and yet the administration is moving forward to raise prices at the pump."
Pushing back on those charges, McCarthy said that API's study constituted an "outdated estimate" that didn't account for changes the EPA made to the rules after receiving public comment - such as a phasing-in that gives some refineries more flexibility to come into compliance.
"We stand behind our estimate," said Bob Greco, API's downstream group director.
The political wrangling over the latest round of regulations to hit the energy industry offered a familiar reprise of a long-running debate over Obama's attempts to use his regulatory power to clean up the nation's sources of fuel.
With just a few years left in his term and no appetite in Congress for major environmental legislation, Obama has vowed to take action unilaterally to tackle climate change and other pollution. Energy advocates have staunchly opposed Obama's proposed emissions limits on new and existing power plants, and accuse him of delaying approval for the Keystone XL pipeline. The issue promises to play a prominent role in the 2014 midterm elections, as Democrats from energy-dependent states find themselves squeezed between economic and environmental concerns.
Tellingly, there was little pushback from the auto industry, with major automakers like Ford, Toyota and Honda praising the EPA for setting one standard for emissions that will apply nation-wide. California already uses the new sulfur standard, and while the U.S. has tightened sulfur limits twice before, it still lags behind many other countries.
"The EPA has effectively harmonized the federal and state emissions requirements, and that's a big deal for us," said Mike Robinson, a vice president at General Motors Co. "It allows us to engineer, build and calibrate vehicles on a national basis."
Breathing the pollutants that come out of a car's tailpipe leads to coughing and shortness of breath for healthy adults, but for those with underlying conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, the implications can be grave: asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and ultimately death, said Paul Billings, the American Lung Association's vice president.
The Obama administration already has moved to clean up motor vehicles by adopting rules that will increase fuel efficiency and putting in place standards to reduce the pollution from cars and trucks blamed for global warming.