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Winter blend gasoline and air quality: KSL investigates claims

By Andrew Adams | Posted - Mar 7th, 2013 @ 10:51pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's winter inversions can be brutal. Do dirty fuels contribute to the problem?

"I've got asthma again since I've been back and I think it could be from the air," a man who recently returned to Utah said.

Anybody who's been out in it can feel it.

"The real problem that causes the inversions is the dirty fuels that are used in the winter in Salt Lake and surrounding areas," said a concerned industry worker who didn't want to be identified because of job security fears.

He's one of several people who recently approached KSL with concerns about the air and what's in gasoline.

We didn't see ... that there would have been an air quality benefit to changing the formulation during the winter.

–Bryce Bird, Div. of Air Quality

Steve VanderGriend with the Urban Air Initiative said, "There's a lot of leeway. There's a lot of variation in gasoline in the United States today."

So KSL went to the refineries. Are dirtier ingredients, more toxic chemicals infused into the winter blend?

No, said Mike Astin, environmental manager at Holly Refining. He said winter and summer blends are different for a simple reason.

"There's a higher vapor pressure allowed and actually required in the winter time for the gasoline to run well in automobiles," he explained.

Did You Know?
"The nation has some 20 different blends of gasoline to meet overlapping state and federal guidelines. Gasoline is blended differently for summer or winter.

"The reason for the different grades of gas comes down to trying to control VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that are more likely to evaporate the hotter it gets.

"So what exactly is the difference between summer and winter gas? Basically, winter gas is cheaper but not as pure."

Source: Popular Mechanics

While it is true the gas may contain some additives and "detergents" — more or less a euphemism for harsh cleaning solvents — industry experts say they are added to fit car and emission requirements. The EPA tests additives before they can be sold.

"The octane requirements now? Obviously octanes in gasolines are a lot lower," said Richard Roehner, who has extensive field experience and now lectures at the University of Utah.

If the gas seems to have less kick now, he said changes have been made to benefit the environment, not hurt it. He said gasoline contains lower sulfur and nitrogen emissions, and lower particulate levels.

It's not that the state hasn't looked at improving the winter blend. It's been one option discussed within the past 18 months.

"We didn't see through our runs of the air quality models that there would have been an air quality benefit to changing that formulation during the winter," said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Coming up Friday
Mechanics said changes in gasoline over the years mean your car is often taking a pounding. In Friday's in-depth report, Andrew Adams takes a look at how those changes are hitting your pocket book.

Bird said more effective solutions are believed to be reducing cold starts and the quantity of stop-and-go's on the road.

"Really our focus is not as much reducing miles traveled, but more making sure to reduce those trips during the day," he said.

Still, the gasoline question hasn't totally gone away.

Some activists like VanderGriend said more quality control is needed.

"Because there's so much variation in the marketplace, I don't think it's been addressed in many, many years," VanderGriend said.

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