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I went to pick-up my son from school yesterday evening, which brought me to the busy corner of Georgia and Forest Glen Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland, at 6:00 pm. I had a few minutes to wait, which left me with some time to stand in the darkness and ponder the endless stream of headlights heading north (and south).

Working on transportation sometimes makes these moments ones of angst -- how on earth do we solve this problem? There are the greenhouse gas emissions and the oil consumption from all of these cars, there's the sprawl that drives all these drivers to drive and the need to improve our transit system to get more of folks out of their cars, and then there's all of the air pollution spewing from their tailpipes.

As I looked down Georgia Avenue, at least I know that each year, new vehicles will get more efficient and spew out less greenhouse gas emissions as standards put in place during President Obama's first term doubling fuel efficiency to 54.5 mpg in 2025.

There should be good news when it comes to cutting the health threatening smog-forming pollution that all of these cars are spewing into our air as well. The good news should come from getting strong new standards in place for ozone and other tailpipe pollution as well as standards in place that will cut the amount of sulfur in our gasoline -- a set of standards called Tier 3. Unfortunately, as I noted last March, Big Oil loves dirty air and has been mounting a campaign to block these standards.

While some standards take time to have a big impact as the vehicle fleet turns over from what's on the road to new and improved vehicles -- low sulfur fuel would have an immediate impact on all vehicles by cutting their life threatening smog-forming pollution.    

Watching the streams of cars drive up Georgia Avenue, I was considering Tier 3 and the low sulfur fuel it would bring almost like a magic wand -- improvement in air quality for everyone, everywhere, once that cleaner fuel hits the pumps.

The Environmental Protection Agency should have proposed Tier 3 and low sulfur fuel standards in 2010 -- these standards are long over- due. This week Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) issued an urgent call for action on these standards along with 12 of her Senate colleagues. Senator Gillibrand notes:

(C)hemicals released from cars and other light-duty vehicles directly contribute to high levels of smog, which can trigger asthma attacks and adversely affects those with heart and lung diseases. The implementation of a new Tier 3 emission standard is expected to result in a 29 percent decrease in nitrogen oxide emissions, a 38 percent decrease in carbon monoxide emissions and a 26 percent decrease in volatile organic compound emissions. According to the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA), reducing the emissions of these harmful chemicals would prevent 400 premature deaths and 52,000 lost workdays due to illness each year.
Senator Gillibrand's letter notes that these standards will create jobs making new and more advanced emissions control equipment for cars and, importantly, create jobs at refineries installing and running new equipment. This letter from the Senate echoes points Sierra Club made in a letter we sent to EPA almost a year ago (PDF). Tier 3 and low sulfur fuel won't solve our bigger transportation challenges but it is time to get moving on standards that will have a huge impact on one big air quality problem.
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