Australia: New fuel standards keep disappointing, stay well below international standards
Australia is a leading OECD country that is well known throughout the world for its clean and green culture, and is an important producer of quality food products for the Asian consumers. The country is home to 24 million people of diverse cultures, with a strong GDP per capita of a commendable USD50k. A nation of organic food and healthcare producers, and an enviable track record of economic growth and sustainability.
It was therefore a surprise to many clean fuels and environmental stakeholders in an announcement on 18-March 2019 that the new Australian fuel standards that have been set for implementation by 01- Oct 2019, were considered by many to be below expectations. The authorities missed the opportunity to align Australian standards with international markets.
The Australian Government had earlier established in its paper that:
Motor vehicle emissions can be split into two categories: noxious emissions which affect human health and the environment and contribute to respiratory illness, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.
Petrol fuelled light vehicle emissions are one of the major causes of air pollution in urban Australia. Our expanding vehicle fleet, increasing urbanisation and aging population mean that further action is needed to improve air quality and reduce the health impacts of air pollution.
Improving fuel quality can help reduce the level of noxious emissions, which improves air quality and health outcomes.
Some advanced vehicle technologies (including advanced emissions control systems and certain fuel efficient engine technologies) require higher quality fuel to work effectively. The quality of fuel influences which engine and emission control technologies can be supplied to the Australian market.
There are proven links between pollutants found in vehicle emissions and a range of human health problems (both short and long term). Air pollutants can have a significant impact on the cardio–-respiratory system. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as asthma and allergies, are especially vulnerable to air pollutants. The effects on human health can include reduced lung function, ischemic heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, and lung cancer 1.
The cost of premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution in Australia in 2010 has been estimated to be up to $7.8 billion and in OECD countries, it is suggested that road transport accounts for approximately half of the cost of these preventable deaths2. With increasing vehicle numbers and use, these costs are likely to increase as the Australian population grows and ages. Between 2010 and 2015, the motor fleet in Australia grew at an average rate of 2.4 per cent making vehicles a growing source of air pollution.3
The human health impacts from exposure to noxious vehicle emissions are an external cost to society which is largely beyond the control of communities and individual businesses. A recent review of the Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000 found that there is a strong case for continued government action in regulating fuel quality, based on the health risks associated with noxious emissions from vehicles and the benefits associated with international harmonisation of fuel standards.
There are two fuel parameters of particular concern: sulfur and octane in petrol. Catalytic converters in vehicles are designed to filter emissions and reduce noxious substances emitted from vehicles. Sulfur clogs the catalytic converters making them less effective. Higher octane fuels can be used in high compression engines petrol engines which are more fuel efficient and produce less greenhouse gas emissions.
Looking into individual specification requirements, the standards fall actually short of the very old Euro-3 standard in some aspects, and is not in a position to meet the above objectives. In terms of CO2 emissions and sustainability, bio-ethers can only be as good as their feedstocks, bio-Ethanol, bio-Methanol and eventually bio-isobutene. This may vary according to the particular processes and initial feedstocks. Bio-Ethers can be made from food biomass (lower CO2 savings and poor sustainability) or from wastes/residues (higher CO2 savings and good sustainability).
Initially, the government considered five possible options by which it can attain its goals to improve vehicle emissions and introduce new vehicle technologies:
The five alternative policy approaches for updating existing fuel standards are as follows:
Australia’s fuel standards remain in effect in their current form (business as usual). Petrol standards retained: unleaded petrol (91 RON) with a maximum sulphur limit of 150 ppm; premium unleaded petrol (95 RON) with a maximum sulphur limit of 50 ppm. Diesel standard continues to specify a maximum sulphur limit of 10 ppm and derived cetane number of 51 for diesel containing biodiesel only.
Revisions to the fuel standards to align with the recommendations of the Hart Report 4 and to harmonise with European standards. Unleaded petrol (91 RON) would be phased out over a specified period of time (e.g. two to five years). Sulphur in premium unleaded petrol (95 RON) would be limited to 10 ppm and a new octane standard for premium unleaded petrol (98 RON) introduced. More stringent requirements would be introduced for cetane and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon levels in diesel.
Revisions to the fuel standards to align with the recommendations of the Hart report and to harmonise with European standards as per alternative B above, except that unleaded petrol (91 RON) is retained but with a lower sulphur level of 10 ppm.
Revisions to the fuel standards as per alternative B above, except with even stricter parameters (including for cetane levels in diesel) to harmonise with the standards recommended by the Worldwide Fuel Charter (that recommends the fuel quality required by automobile companies to meet particular emission standards).
Staged introduction of world standards from 2020, with a review in 2022 to determine next steps. Unleaded petrol (91 RON) would be retained. Sulphur would be reduced to 50 ppm for unleaded petrol (91 RON) and 25 ppm for premium unleaded petrol (95 RON) and a new octane standard for premium unleaded petrol (98 RON) introduced. Revisions to other parameters as per alternative B above.
The government sought the views of its various stakeholders (ACFA also contributed to the request for public comment), and after a three-year evaluation, made its decision with the 18 March 2019 announcement.
Aromatics - Predominantly, the fact that the max aromatics content will be maintained at 45% v/v, with a max pool average of 42% v/v over all grades, until 31-Dec 2021. As from 01-Jan 2022 the standard will maintain the max of 45% v/v with a reduced cap of 35% v/v max over the pool average. International standards in most parts of the world are already down to 35% v/v max for many years.
Sulphur - Similarly, the allowed Sulphur specification limits are with 150ppm in 91RON, the prevailing fuel grade in Australia, and with 50ppm in 95RON until 30-Jun 2027 at an unacceptable level for a developed country. Only as of 01-Jul 2027, eight long years from today on, the Sulphur specification will drop to 10ppm for all gasoline grades which is today the adopted standard in most developed economies.
Benzene – Benzene specification will be limited to 1%wt.
Olefins – Olefins specification will be limited to 18%vol.
Credit is due for having its benzene and olefins specifications in line with international standards.
In summary, with the new standards introduced the government grants a 3.5-year waiver on the half-hearted aromatics cuts (with the intention to develop feasible solutions during this period, due to suggested challenges faced in production of low aromatics, low sulphur, high octane fuel) and a staggering eight year-waiver on the Sulphur specifications, both standards which should have been implemented already years ago. Needless to say, this step will make Australia even more of a possible dumping ground for low fuel qualities in the future, especially for a country that imports close to 40% of its finished fuels requirement.
Australia now stands way below many Asian countries in terms of its ability to meet global standards in clean fuel regulations and implementation, not to mention its backwardness against developed OECD countries.
In addition, the government and state EPAs have not supported the removal of fuel ethers limit in gasoline, in spite of scientific facts and data highlighting that risk management is directly based on minimising leaking fuel tanks, as practiced by most countries in the world. The EU and the Japanese governments have run comprehensive three-year risk assessment studies to prove that fuel ethers remain an important clean fuel component where responsible handling and management of storage tanks is done in order to reap the benefits of using the clean fuel component. Studies done by Stratas Advisors have shown that the limits imposed on fuel ethers have caused Australian consumers by as much as USD3/bbl premium in import cost, as well as reducing supply availability/security in its imports (40% of domestic demand) by as much as two thirds.
1 International Agency for Research on Cancer 2013. Air pollution and cancer, IARC, 161. OECD 2014.
2 The Cost of Air Pollution: Health Impacts of Road Transport, Brussels, 21 May 2014.
4 Hart Energy 2014. International Fuel Quality Standards and Their Implications for Australian Standards. The Department commissioned this report in 2014 to compare Australian fuel quality standards with comparable fuel standards in other countries, and to examine points of difference, 27 October 2014.
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