Hurricane Ike spurs broader EPA fuel waivers

By Ron Kotrba | September 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted Sept. 22, 2008 at 10:29 a.m. CST

The U.S. EPA continues to issue proactive measures in the wake of hurricanes. On Sept. 11, just as U.S. fuel supplies and infrastructure were still recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav, the EPA issued several reformulated gasoline (RFG) and summertime fuel waivers as Hurricane Ike neared landfall in eastern Texas. On Sept. 17, the EPA further broadened the regional scope of relief from regulatory limits on fuel volatility.

Waivers of certain gasoline requirements pertaining to reduced Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP), as required by federal and state laws during summertime months, were granted for nine southeastern states through the remainder of the high ozone period, which ended Sept. 15. However, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson granted a waiver on RGF requirements for the Houston, Galveston, Brazoria and Dallas areas of eastern Texas through Sept. 30. The high ozone season in 95 counties in eastern Texas runs through Oct. 1, according to EPA.

Nearly a week after Hurricane Ike's powerful winds and floodwaters came and went, the EPA extended an RFG waiver to parts of Kentucky, and further relaxed the RVP limits on gasoline sold in eastern Texas through Oct. 1. The Sept. 11 waiver rose Texas' RVP limits from 7.8 pounds per square inch (psi) and 9 psi, depending on which county, to 11.5 psi. Now through Oct. 1 however, the 11.5 psi RVP limit is lifted entirely.

RVP is the accepted measure of a fuel's volatility, and is reduced by varying amounts in the summer months to help combat poor air quality and smog in specified areas of the United States.

On Sept. 5, after Hurricane Gustav but before Hurricane Ike, the EPA had issued similar waivers to Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina. The nine states affected by the Sept. 11 EPA waiver are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas.

"Gulf-area pipeline shutdowns, numerous refinery shutdowns and port closures occurring in advance of Hurricane Ike's landfall are constraining already tight gasoline supplies for each of these states meeting the summertime high ozone RVP requirements and, where applicable, RFG requirements," wrote Johnson in a Sept. 11 letter addressed to the governors of the nine affected states.

The waiver allows the sale of conventional gasoline with a RVP of 11.5 psi rather than the state- or region-dependent 7 psi, 7.8 psi, or 9 psi requirements in affected regions of the named states - except, as previously noted, in the case of Texas where the 11.5 psi RVP limit has been lifted in a superseding waiver.

Since ethanol is more volatile than gasoline, E10 (gas with between nine percent and 10 percent ethanol) is allowed a 1 psi RVP allowance over gasoline with less than 9 percent under federal statute. The EPA has waived the nine percent minimum ethanol requirement to qualify for the "special provisions for alcohol blends." This means gas with less than nine percent ethanol can qualify for the extra 1 psi RVP allowance.

RFG and summertime fuel waivers are not uncommon in the wake of hurricanes or other natural disasters, but Johnson allowed the waivers because he determined that an "extreme and unusual fuel supply circumstance" existed as a result of the back-to-back hurricanes.