End sought to requiring oxygenated gas in winter


The Glendening administration is moving to suspend wintertime sales of specially blended, cleaner-burning gasoline in the Baltimore and Washington areas, saying the air pollution that the fuel is meant to combat no longer poses a problem.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced yesterday that he has asked a General Assembly committee to let him drop state regulations requiring sales of "oxygenated" gasoline, effective this fall, because carbon monoxide levels in the Baltimore and Washington areas now meet federal health standards.

The fuel -- with chemicals added to make it burn more cleanly -- has been sold at the pumps from November through February for the past three winters.

The move, if approved, is likely to be popular among motorists, since the oxygen-rich fuel costs them a penny or two per gallon more than ordinary fuel and smells stronger -- a little like paint thinner. Some motorists also complained that oxygenated gas reduced their vehicles' mileage and engine performance.

"This action will allow the oil industry relief from having to provide more expensive fuels, and could save consumers money at the gas pump," the governor said.

Even if endorsed by the legislature, the administration's move still must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress in 1990 passed the Clean Air Act requiring sales of oxygenated fuels in Baltimore, Washington and 37 other urban areas that had carbon monoxide pollution problems. The sales began here in November 1992.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause head

aches, dizziness and breathing problems at low levels. At higher levels, it can trigger heart attacks and even cause unconsciousness and death.

The pollutant was a problem a decade ago, when carbon monoxide reached unhealthful levels in downtown Baltimore on 17 days. But since 1988, there have been no violations of the federal safety threshold of nine parts carbon monoxide per million parts of air.

State officials attribute the air quality improvement to tightened pollution controls on industry and autos.

"People are driving newer, cleaner cars," said Jane Nishida, state environment secretary. She also credited auto emissions inspections and reformulated gasoline, which is sold the rest of the year, with helping to reduce carbon monoxide problems. Reformulated gas is required in Baltimore and other smog-prone urban areas to combat summertime ozone, a different pollution problem, but it also burns more cleanly than did the fuels sold in the 1980s.

The state has asked the EPA to declare that Baltimore has met federal carbon monoxide standards, which would free the state from having to sell oxygenated fuels. A similar petition is being prepared for the Maryland suburbs of Washington. The agency has yet to rule on the state's request, but Ruth Podems, an EPA spokeswoman, said federal officials are trying to respond quickly.

Carbon monoxide should remain well within safe levels even without oxygenated gas, state officials say, because of pending federal requirements to make cars even cleaner-running in the next few years.

Should carbon monoxide become a problem again, the fuel would be ordered sold in service stations, officials said.

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