The U.S. petroleum industry is recommending a regulatory plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that

would require it to lower average sulfur levels in conventional gasoline sold throughout the United States including here in Utah, resulting in significantly improved air quality without imposing excessive costs on motorists.Hard to believe? Not really. While the business community is often depicted as approaching environmental regulations reluctantly, at best, this is an instance when an industry has gotten ahead of the regulators in an effort to make auto emission rules more efficient and less costly, both to itself and to American consumers.

In contrast to the typical regulatory approach, which might be described as "one-size-fits-all," in which one blanket rule is imposed on everyone, the oil industry is proposing different kinds of lower sulfur gasoline for different areas, depending on local air quality conditions. Thus, areas with slight or negligible air pollution would not have to pay unnecessarily for fuel designed for those with more severe problems.

The proposals would help Utah reduce the overall level of its polluting emissions and help meet national air quality goals set by EPA. That, in turn, might enable Utah to avoid imposing more stringent regulations on other activities to meet those goals.

Reducing sulfur in gasoline is important because sulfur diminishes the efficiency of an automobile's catalytic converter, producing an increase in nitrogen oxide and other tailpipe emissions that contribute to air pollution.

The effect of the proposed lower sulfur gasoline in Utah will be to continue to reduce emissions in Salt Lake's non-at-tain-ment area as well as throughout the rest of the state. Newer cleaner-burning vehicles meeting tougher tailpipe standards will multiply the emission re-duc-tions even further. In fact, with the new fuels, the next generation of vehicles would cut tailpipe emissions by more than half, compared to current cars.

The petroleum industry says that if its proposal is accepted, it will be ready to provide its new gasoline when newer, cleaner vehicles are required by EPA, probably in 2004.

Refiners estimate that the capital investment costs to lower sulfur levels in the new fuels, as the industry has proposed, will total about $3 billion. But that would translate into a manufacturing cost increase of only a few cents a gallon, on average, according to one estimate.

The automakers have proposed much steeper reductions in sulfur, but these would cost industry and consumers significantly more and simply aren't needed to meet air quality goals or to work with new vehicle technology. They want sulfur to be reduced nationwide as low as in California's severely reformulated gasoline, the costliest in the country to produce.

The benefits of the petroleum industry's proposal to reduce sulfur would build on past progress. Since 1970, improved fuel, when used in cleaner-running vehicles, have helped reduce highway vehicle emissions by an amount that exceeds reductions in emissions from all other sources, according to EPA, even though people are driving more than twice as many miles as they were then.

The petroleum industry's action comes, no doubt, with recognition that tighter regulations are a future fact, including regulations that will require cleaner-burning gasoline. But that's no reason not to applaud its proposal.

In effect, it is saying to government regulators and to American consumers: "If, as a nation, we consider cleaner air an important goal that we are determined to achieve, let's do it right for a change Let's do it in the most efficient manner and impose the least cost on business and con-sumers."

I think that is a sentiment and an objective that we can all share.