Getting the Lead Out

WASHINGTON–Lead free gasoline will be needed for catalyst‑equipped 1975 automobiles soon to reach the market. These latest pollution control devices are supposed to permit an average 10% better fuel economy than 1974 cars. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that such lead free fuel will save motorists $45 per year in maintenance costs.

All these relative savings sound promising until one looks at what the Federal Energy Administration (FEA) may try to pull off in deciding at what price lead free gas will be sold at the pump.

Until early this month, lead free gas was selling at an average of 4 4 per gallon over regular, compliments of the industry-indentured FEA. There was no opportunity for public comment. But with a major lead free gas market of 1975 cars on the horizon, the FEA cranked up its decision-making process. It gave the public just ten days in June to comment on a permanent premium pricing policy for lead free gasoline beginning July 1, 1974. The stakes for 1975 car buyers are several hundred millions of dollars.

Our Public Interest Research Group and Consumers Union submitted the consumer’s case in a June 10, 1974 letter to FEA chief, John Sawhill. Three studies were cited to show that there was no justification for allowing lead free gas to be priced above regular gas. One of these studies, an Arthur D. Little, Inc. analysis for the Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that “through 1976 there is no net economic penalty(cents per gallon).” To translate, that means the oil industry can produce lead free gas for the same price as leaded gas at equal octane.

In recent years, motorists have complained to us about the price differences between the two types of gasoline. When leaded gas came along many years ago, the price went up. Now, the oil companies want to charge the same price as for premium for taking the lead out of gasoline.

Consumers can appreciate why the multibillion dollar corporations are fighting to keep the Senate from approving an effective consumer protection bill this month after taking note of the following passage from the aforementioned letter to Mr. Sawhill:

The Federal Energy Office has not cited a single re­port or presented a single fact in support of its proposed premium pricing policy for 91 RON lead free gasoline.

Who fights for the consumer in Washington? Certainly, not the FEA,and it won’t be the proposed consumer protection agency if the radical reactionaries such as Senators James Allen, Sam Nunn and William Brock could have their way.

Fortunately, on the lead free gasoline matter, FEA backed down from its policy of allowing lead free fuel to be priced at the same level as premium. For the month of July, it announced that lead free gas could only be sold for an extra 14 over regular. There was no question but that the June 10th letter, with its cited studies, was a decisive factor in turning FEA partially around. If FEA holds to its decision for the coming year,motorists in 1975 cars will save $300 million (the difference between a 44 and a 14 increase).

But the FEA is merely in a tactical retreat to give the oil industry an opportunity to regroup for a second try. FEA has declared that its 14 pricing decision was good only tempor­arily. It has issued an invitation for further industry and public comment for another post-July ruling on the permitted price of lead free gasoline. Oil industry data submitted to the FEA for higher prices can be allowed to stay secret. This means that consumer groups will not be able to analyze and question this self-serving material. And it is not likely that the FEA, its staff swollen with former oil industry officials and like-minded former big business personnel, is going to fight against further inflation and further consumer gouging.

In all this struggle over FEA’s pricing policy, the public health reasons behind lead free gas should not be forgotten. Lead in gasoline accounts for 90% of all airborne lead or about 200,000 tons per year. Extensive surveys of urban children, exposed to auto lead emissions, reveal that about 25% of them have blood lead levels at or above the level considered unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

John Sawhill, who recently took over as head of the Federal Energy Administration in Washington, D.C., works everyday in a bureaucratic cocoon surrounded by industry lobbyists. He needs to hear from the people. Write him your complaints and suggestions about gasoline prices and other energy matters. At age 37, he’s still young enough to learn.

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