These rules match those already in place in California, Europe, Japan and South Korea. The EPA estimates that, phased in nationally, they will prevent up to 2,400 premature deaths, 3,200 hospital visits, 22,000 asthma attacks and 1.8 million lost school and work days every year.
Auto manufacturers like the rule because it will harmonize policy across all 50 states. But refinery companies aren't so enthusiastic. They point to a study from last year that concluded the EPA's rule would raise gas prices by as much as 9 cents a gallon not a message that price-sensitive drivers will like.
Yet that study didn't assess the rule that the EPA ended up proposing. Among other things, the actual rule gives refineries a lot of flexibility in meeting the requirements, allowing them to average the sulfur content across the pool of gasoline they produce and to make needed capital improvements over many years. The EPA is being particularly lenient with small refineries, offering them a longer phase-in period. The agency figures that the cost will be more like 1 cent a gallon.
Even that would be too much if the public health benefits were negligible. The EPA's figures indicate that costs in 2017 might rival the value of the benefits, if those benefits come in at the very low end of the agency's estimates. But the cost-benefit picture improves quickly: By 2030, the EPA calculates, the benefits of the program will outweigh costs by at least 2 to 1 and possibly by as much as 7 to 1.
President Obama's first term saw some landmark new environmental standards. His second should be even more controversial; the announcement of this rule appears to have been delayed to avoid an election-year gas-price fight. More regulations, such as new rules on greenhouse-gas emissions, are on deck. The EPA's approach to environmental issues isn't always the best. But it is often better than the alternative: doing nothing as Congress dallies.
In cases such as this one, in which the cost-benefit picture is favorable, the president should no longer hesitate.