New EPA air quality standards could mean higher gasoline prices for Lawrence residents

Morning commuters drive out of a thick fog between Eudora and Lawrence on Tuesday. About 20,000 Douglas County motorists commute into Kansas City each day. If Lawrence is determined to be out of compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations, all gasoline stations in Douglas County likely would be required to sell specially formulated, low-vapor gasoline during the summer months.

Local health and transportation leaders are eagerly awaiting a number from the federal government that could affect how much Lawrence motorists pay for gasoline.

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new air quality standards by the end of October. There are concerns that the new numbers for allowable ozone may push Lawrence into noncompliance.

“If this does come to pass, I think it will have a pretty large impact on the community,” said Richard Ziesenis, director of environmental health for the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department.

Changes, most likely, first would be noticed at the gasoline pump. All gasoline stations in Douglas County likely would be required to sell specially formulated, low-vapor gasoline during the summer months. Stations in Kansas City already face that requirement. Estimates on how much more the specially formulated gasoline would cost vary.

But Scott Zaremba — an owner of Lawrence-based Zarco 66 Inc., which also operates stations in Kansas City — said he’s seen the price variations range from 2 cents to 20 cents a gallon. The specially formulated fuels more heavily rely on ethanol, the cost of which can vary based on corn and other crop prices.

“What’s for sure is that it is going to raise your price, period,” Zaremba said. “If that product is required, there is no getting around higher prices.”

But Tom Gross, an air quality regulator for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said it was still too early to predict whether Lawrence would be considered out of compliance. The current regulation allows no more that 75 parts per billion of ozone in the air. The EPA hasn’t released the new number, but Gross said the agency had indicated it would be between 60 and 70 parts per billion.

The last time Douglas County had its air quality monitored, it checked in at 72 parts per billion. But that measurement was taken nearly four years ago.

That’s why Ziesenis said a reasonable approach would be to install a monitor back in Douglas County. Federal regulations rely on a three-year average for air-quality readings, meaning Douglas County would have three years to show whether it is meeting the new standards.

But Gross said the EPA could choose to declare Douglas County out of compliance without a monitor being installed. That’s because about 20,000 Douglas County motorists commute into Kansas City each day, and the EPA has the authority to rule those commuters are contributing to Kansas City’s air quality problems.

That frustrates Zaremba. He said that makes the process too arbitrary. For example, he said it is known that range burning in the Flint Hills contributes to spikes in ozone in Kansas City, so, using the EPA’s logic, the Flint Hills region also should be required to help solve Kansas City’s air quality issues.

“The Flint Hills obviously would scream bloody murder about that,” Zaremba said.

Lawrence and Douglas County have undertaken efforts to reduce emissions. Those include buying hybrid buses for the public transit system, adding bike lanes to roads, and Westar’s project to reduce emissions from its coal-fired power plant on the northern edge of Lawrence.

But Todd Girdler, a senior transportation planner for the city, said regulators would be looking for what the area can do in the future, not what it already has done. Future projects could be more difficult, he said.

“The 800-pound elephant in this area is that we have a lot of congestion on a road that doubles as a state highway,” Girdler said. “If we had the South Lawrence Trafficway built, we would have less truck traffic idling on 23rd Street, and that would help.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment is expected to make a recommendation on whether Douglas County is in compliance with the new regulations in early 2011. The EPA will make the final decision.