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As Northern Kentucky Reconsiders Cleaner Gas, Is Louisville Next?

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Right now, the gas you buy in the Louisville metro area and three Northern Kentucky counties is different than the gas that’s sold everywhere else in the state. It’s known as “reformulated gasoline,” and it releases fewer harmful chemicals that contribute to air pollution, like ground-level ozone.

But that could soon change. Kentucky environmental officials are petitioning the federal government to allow the sale of conventional gasoline in Northern Kentucky, and are studying whether such a move would make sense in Louisville, too.

In a presentation to the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, Kentucky Division of Air Quality Director Sean Alteri told legislators the environmental benefits of reformulated gasoline are much less than they used to be, as emissions controls and efficiency improve on vehicles. And reformulated gas is expensive, which puts Northern Kentucky gas stations at a disadvantage compared to their Ohio counterparts.

“As a result of that price differential, [Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet] Secretary [Charles] Snavely provided a letter to [EPA] Administrator [Scott] Pruitt to petition out of the program,” Alteri said in the committee meeting. “Now, what’s required of us is we have to put together a demonstration to show that the removal of the program will not affect the attainment and the maintenance of the area. That we’ll continue to attain the standard even though this program is removed.”

The Money Angle

According to the latest data from the Energy Information Administration, reformulated gas in the Midwest region (of which Kentucky is a part), costs on average almost 18 cents more than conventional gasoline.

Reformulated gas has been sold since 1993 in Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Jefferson counties, as well as parts of Oldham and Bullitt counties. The 1990 Clean Air Act required some areas to use the cleaner gas; it wasn’t mandatory in Kentucky, but the state voluntarily enrolled the counties with the most pressing ozone pollution issues.

Ozone is caused when pollution like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds chemically react in sunlight. NOx comes from both vehicle emissions and power plants; Alteri said it’s much more cost-effective to remove the pollutant from power plants. It costs about $1,400 a ton, versus $48,000 to remove a ton of NOx from gasoline.

“So the most appropriate control strategy would be to implement those controls at the power plant rather than the vehicles at $48,000 per ton,” Alteri said. “It’s really a matter of determining what’s the most appropriate cost-effective control strategy. So that’s the angle we’re looking at.”

In Kentucky in 2014, the most recent year for which federal data is available, mobile sources — mostly cars and trucks, but also including airplanes and trains — accounted for about 47 percent of the state’s NOx emissions. Fuel combustion — nearly all of which was from coal-fired power plants — accounted for about 33 percent of the pollution.

Would Louisville Follow?

Though Kentucky will officially seek approval to sell conventional gasoline in the Northern Kentucky counties, no decision has been made about Louisville. Louisville Air Pollution Control District spokesman Tom Nord said the agency is working with the state to model whether a similar switch would result in increased air pollution in Jefferson County.

Two Louisville-area legislators in the meeting Thursday were skeptical. Representative Reginald Meeks questioned Alteri on his claims that air quality is improving statewide, based on data from air monitors.

“I guess I’m wondering from a policy standpoint how do we in Jefferson County interpret that to our constituents who see the problem very real every day with their children and their families, with issues of soot and particulate that collects on cars and vehicles and houses, causes damages to businesses, etc.,” Meeks said. “That must not be part of your equation, so I guess I would ask you, since it’s not part of your equation, how do you justify saying things are getting better when there are so many indicators that indicate the opposite of that?”

Representative Jeffery Donohue told regulators that the reformulated gasoline is partially why the air quality has improved in Louisville in recent years.

"I hope that as we move forward we’re not moving backwards,” he said. “Because I don’t want to see anything happen in the city of Louisville, or in Jefferson County or anywhere in the state, I want us to continue to improve. I’d like to see statistically where you can show us the facts of where this [switch back to conventional gas] is going to make an improvement for us.”

Energy and Environment Cabinet secretary Charles Snavely told the legislators the state is prepared to prove that the switch from reformulated to conventional gas — at least in Northern Kentucky — could be done without reducing the air quality.

“This is an added cost, it’s an extremely expensive control strategy. Every person that drives a car is helping pay for this, and we can prove that we can maintain the same air quality,” he said. “Because if we couldn’t prove it, it wouldn’t be approved by the EPA. We have certain standards for each of these pollutants under the ambient air quality standards.”

Kentucky will now work on a revision of the State Implementation Plan that lays out how these counties will comply with the federal Clean Air Act. The draft will be available for public comment for 30 days before it’s submitted to the EPA for approval.

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