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In Praise of Cleaner-burning Gasoline

Last week was spring break at UC Berkeley, so I took a few days off for a very pleasant vacation, walking by the ocean with friends and enjoying the beauty of California. As a result, I wasn’t able to be at the hearings on gasoline prices in the California State Senate last Tuesday. The state has seen a price spike over the last month that at one point drove pump prices to a dollar above the rest of the country.  We’re used to paying a bit more for gas here — due to higher taxes and the cleaner-burning fuel used only in California — but the difference is usually around 30-40 cents.

Though I missed last week’s hearings, I’ve been at enough legislative sessions on gas price spikes (and read news reports on this one) to have a pretty good guess at what went on.

Some consumer groups and left-leaning politicians confidently accused Big Oil of colluding, manipulating California’s gasoline prices, and gouging drivers.  Then industry representatives and right-leaning politicians responded with equal certainty that recent price spikes are the result of California regulations that since 1996 have required a gasoline blend used nowhere else in the world.


In a blog post a couple years ago, I explained why they are both wrong.  The accusers don’t have evidence that producers are artificially restricting output to drive up prices; real scarcity could completely explain the state’s higher gas prices and occasional spikes.  But the defenders who are claiming that the price fluctuations reflect only competitive market dynamics also have no proof.  In fact, since I wrote that post in 2012, concentration among California gasoline producers has increased further, which has ratcheted up the incentive to create artificial scarcity in the market.

In late 2014, the California Energy Commission appointed a 5-member committee, called the Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, to consider what drives California’s gasoline prices and whether the market is workably competitive.  I’m one of those lucky five.  There will surely be some interesting meetings.


But before diving into the murky world of gasoline price competition, let’s step back and remember the murky air that prompted the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to adopt the world’s strictest gasoline standard (known as CARB gasoline) and effectively separate our gasoline market from the rest of the country.

In the 1990s, California had very poor air quality.  Most of the population lived in counties that were out of compliance with federal standards for ozone, a gas that damages lungs and leads to a variety medical problems, including premature death.  The Los Angeles-San Diego corridor was in “severe nonattainment” for ozone.  Federal standards for reformulated gasoline (RFG) went into effect in the early 1990s, but those standards were critically flawed — as Max Auffhammer and Ryan Kellogg have documented in a 2011 paper published in American Economic Review, which has received far too little attention from the EPA (A nice non-technical summary of the paper is here).  The federal standard has a loophole that allows refiners to meet it by adjusting their gasoline formulation in a way that has little or no ozone-reducing impact.


The California standard closes that loophole by requiring a stricter formulation.  Auffhammer and Kellogg show that only California’s standard has had a substantial, and statistically significant, impact on ozone.  Combining their results with medical research on the impact of ozone, they estimate that the California standard saves at least 660 lives per year, which more than justifies the additional cost of our cleaner-burning gasoline.[1]  And their estimates don’t count reduced illnesses (short of death) or other reduced environmental damage that we know are also caused by ozone.  A new study out of USC this month shows that kids in Los Angeles today have substantially healthier lungs than those who grew up there 20 years ago and links the improvement to reduced auto emissions.

The results in California have been tangible.  Ozone concentrations have steadily declined over the last 20 years.  The haze in the LA basin continues to dissipate.  Our air is cleaner and as a result we are healthier.

So, what has the California gasoline standard actually cost consumers?

The most direct measure is retail prices, but they are confounded by taxes, which vary month to month because California and some other states collect both a per-gallon excise tax and a percentage sales tax.  Still, from 2009 to 2013, California taxes averaged about 20 cents per gallon above the national average and our retail prices averaged about 34 cents above national average.[2]  Much of the 14 cent difference is likely attributable to CARB formulation, but it’s difficult to know how much.


A cleaner measure is refinery-level wholesale prices, which do not include taxes and are easier to compare over a long time span.  In the 13 years prior to adoption of CARB gasoline 1983-1995 (as far back as the available data go), California wholesale prices averaged 6 cents above national average (in 2014 dollars).  From 1996 through 2014, they have averaged 16 cents above national average (in 2014 dollars), an increase of 10 cents per gallon.

The average Californian uses about a gallon of gasoline per day, both directly in their car and indirectly in the fuels that are used by businesses that serve them.  So, we are each paying, on average, somewhere in the range of $37-$51 per year.  That’s saving hundreds of lives and preventing lung damage in thousands of other people each year.  And these health benefits go disproportionately to the poorest residents, because they suffer the greatest share of the impact from ozone.

Yes, our occasional price spikes are annoying.  And, yes, they raise real concerns about the competitiveness of the market, which the state should continue to investigate.  But averaged over the years, the cost of our cleaner-burning gasoline is actually pretty modest.  Californians love to gripe about the high cost of living here, but we stay in large part because of the natural beauty and our enjoyment of being outdoors.  Paying a bit more for gasoline — along with the state’s program to check tailpipe emissions at the time of vehicle registration — makes an important contribution towards maintaining that beauty and the ability to enjoy it.

[1] In doing their calculations, Auffhammer and Kellogg use the EPA’s value of a statistical life and assumed that the California formulation raises costs by 8-11 cents per gallon.  Their argument stands up, however, even if the CARB formulation cost more than 30 cents per gallon.

[2] The difference in state levies increased on January 1 with the inclusion of transportation fuels in the state’s cap-and-trade program.  As I discussed last summer, and has since been confirmed by the industry and the Air Resources Board, this is expected to raise California gas prices by about $0.10 per gallon.

I’m still tweeting energy news articles and new research papers @BorensteinS 



Severin Borenstein View All

Severin Borenstein is Professor of the Graduate School in the Economic Analysis and Policy Group at the Haas School of Business and Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. He received his A.B. from U.C. Berkeley and Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. His research focuses on the economics of renewable energy, economic policies for reducing greenhouse gases, and alternative models of retail electricity pricing. Borenstein is also a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA. He served on the Board of Governors of the California Power Exchange from 1997 to 2003. During 1999-2000, he was a member of the California Attorney General's Gasoline Price Task Force. In 2012-13, he served on the Emissions Market Assessment Committee, which advised the California Air Resources Board on the operation of California’s Cap and Trade market for greenhouse gases. In 2014, he was appointed to the California Energy Commission’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee, which he chaired from 2015 until the Committee was dissolved in 2017. From 2015-2020, he served on the Advisory Council of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Since 2019, he has been a member of the Governing Board of the California Independent System Operator.

12 thoughts on “In Praise of Cleaner-burning Gasoline Leave a comment

  1. Indian Oil Corp (IOC), Indias largest oil firm, to invest USD 1.3 b (approx.) in fuel quality up-gradation projects at two key refineries as well as other expansion projects(Feb 2015)

  2. Thanks Professor Borenstein and others for the points emerged. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) suggests (to Govt. of India), to skip Euro V fuel norms and move directly to Euro VI in 2020. The Auto Fuel Policy Committee for 2025 has recommended Euro V be implemented by April 2020 and Euro VI by April 2024. But ICCT has highlighted that implementing Euro V may not address high emission of nitrogen oxides from heavy duty vehicles linked to emphysema, bronchitis and heart disease.
    Narayan, Head-Energy Efficiency, Energy Management Center, Govt. of Kerala, India ,

  3. Professor Borenstein correctly characterized the typical biases and messaging one can anticipate from the right and the left during these hearings. There is a third group that is critically important, that being the policy-makers themselves. Both legislators and regulators play a significant part in this dialogue. Since they can influence both the direction and robustness of a committee’s efforts, policy-makers’ influences are not always consistent with objective, factual and complete results. Some readers may recall the fate of the Emissions Market Assessment Committee (of which Dr. Borenstein was a member) following the Committee’s initial report and suggestions. Nonetheless, objective and robust policy analysis must be part of the work of the Petroleum Market Advisory Committee.

    But in order to address the State’s true needs and policy influences, the PMAC and other committees must be willing to broaden their scope beyond a narrow focus. Essentially, one might consider the possibility that by limiting the scope of such an advisory committee solely to petroleum markets, policy-makers have indeed established an agenda that will continue to support their agenda.

    While the average economic impact of specific policy measures may be relatively small, California has a policy culture that has, en masse, imposed far more significant and palpable burdens on Californians. Isolating the influence of specific markets and policy instruments essentially biases the conclusion, indicating that the impact is relatively small and inconsequential to the overall economic health of the state. What is truly needed is a more omnibus evaluation.

    While a call for a broad policy analysis may initially seem off point for this blog, Dr. Borenstein essentially brought the issue up with his comment regarding Californians who complain (gripe) about the high cost of living. A granular evaluation of the state’s net migration patterns shows that Californians may be behaving in precisely the manner that Tiebout predicted. California residents are not limiting their response to gripes, they are leaving. Between 1992 and 2012, the state witnessed only two years of positive net migration. Further, only the age group 16-24 is seeing net population growth. For all age groups above 24 (and below 16) California’s population is shrinking. Who needs the Master Computer of Logan’s Run when California has the State’s policy culture to implement Carousel and Sanctuary comes in the form of Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Texas and Washington?

    If the PMAC’s work is approached from the perspective that the State is just swell and that the average impact of a specific policy measure is “pretty modest”, once again a California advisory committee may miss out on an opportunity to truly address a significant challenge to the state.

  4. This article assumes that all cars are created equal and ignores the progress in electronically controlled combustion that were introduced in the late 80s. In 11995 THERE were still many carburetor vehicles on the the road but now they are virtually gone. The new engines do not need California’s fuel and run just as clean on 100% gasoline. We are actually wasting fuel and energy with the special fuel with no benefit to our air. All it does is complicate the supply and refining process at great expense. CA does not care because higher prices means higher taxes on fuel.

    • Bruno is absolutely correct on his point. An article in Science in 1998 or 1999 pointed out that oxygenation of the fuel in the engines that wore in production in the late 1990’s had no effect on the production of CO and ozone. You will note that the ozone levels were already going down despite the increase in the state population, the number of cars and the number of miles driven before the CARB standards came into being. With modern engines (most cars on the road have them) there is no need to oxygenate the fuel. The CARD standards should be removed entirely to reduce energy consumption from oil and and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions. One must not forget that CARB brought us MTBE, which had a very negative effect on water qualilty. I would rather see the extra money spent on improving the roads to remove traffic jams which would have economic benefits as well a reduction in pollution and fuel consumption.

      • Bruno is not “absolutely correct.” One of the big effects of the CARB standards is the reduction of Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP). This reduces evaporative emissions–stuff that vents from the gasoline tank, especially when the weather is hot. This problem is not fixed by using fuel injectors (as opposed to carburetors).

  5. Supply constraints also add to the current larger price difference between CA and elsewhere. These would be a combination of the Valero strike and the FCC fire at the Exxon/Mobil refinery in so Cal.

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