In Conversation with: Eric Holthusen

Eric Holthusen, senior research science consultant at Saudi Aramco's Research &
Development Centre in Dhahran.

Growing awareness for fuel quality in the Middle East

Fuel quality in the Middle East varies radically from one country to the next, and obstacles to cleaner fuels range from a lack of awareness, urgency and political will to a lack of modern refineries and coordination.

"While some countries have developed road maps towards cleaner fuels, others lag behind, depending on national priorities," said Eric Holthusen, senior research science consultant at Saudi Aramco's Research & Development Centre in Dhahran. "The challenges are the modernization and installation of refinery infrastructure able to produce cleaner fuels and the inter-country coordination of common clean fuel specification."

Despite the challenges, an effort is underway by the Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, or GCC, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, to establish a regional fuel specification, which in turn would significantly improve air quality.

"Governments, oil and automotive industries have to work together on the implementation of emission and fuel specifications," Holthusen said. "Without the latest vehicle technology being available in the region, cleaner fuels would have little effect on air quality improvement."

Holthusen, who previously worked for Royal Dutch Shell in numerous capacities, predicted that in coming years, the growing population in the Middle East and increasing car ownership is likely to result in greater awareness of the connection between fuels, emissions and air quality, which Holthusen said "seems low at the present."

He predicted significant strides in cleaner fuels in the Middle East and tougher emissions standards by 2020. "It seems reasonable to expect Euro 5 compliance in GCC markets by the end of this decade," Holthusen said, referring to the European emission standard that defines acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold in European states.

In a recent interview, Holthusen responded to questions about fuel trends in the Middle East. He compared the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region:

Q: How would you characterize the state of fuel quality in the Middle East, how does it compare to other regions like the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific, and what are the challenges that remain?

A: "The situation of fuel specifications in the Middle East can rather be compared to the Asia-Pacific region, with significant differences in fuel quality between countries. While some countries have developed road maps towards cleaner fuels, others lag behind, depending on national priorities. The challenges are the modernization and installation of refinery infrastructure able to produce cleaner fuels and the inter-country coordination of common clean fuel specification."

Q: What's the role of alternative fuels in the fuel mix now and in the future?

A: "While Saudi Arabia is investing in solar energy projects, alternative fuels are not on the agenda in most Middle Eastern countries, with the exception of Qatar considering the use of gas-to-liquids products from Shell's Pearl facility in their fuel mix and UAE, who have started bio-fuel trials in vehicles of some government-related agencies. This situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, due to the availability and cost advantage of crude oil-derived transport fuels. Niche projects on alternative fuels are discussed like algae cultivation in desert areas in UAE or jatropha cultivation in Lebanon, but it is hard to predict, if these projects will reach maturity."

Q: The Middle East is the top petroleum producing and exporting region in the world. It also has the world's largest crude oil reserves. How receptive are governments and industry to embracing cleaner and alternative fuel development and production, given the region's commitment to fossil fuels?

A: "While the United Nations have compiled air quality data for some Middle Eastern cities that point to issues, due to climate and population density these problems are not as significant as experienced in mega cities in Asia. Nevertheless, most countries in the region show a clear trend towards cleaner fuels. This trend is helped by an increasing orientation towards export of finished fuels and refineries configured or built for this purpose aim their production at latest European specifications, thus making cleaner fuels available for the local markets sometimes ahead of national specifications. Another stakeholder driving for cleaner fuels in the region is the automotive industry that sees the Middle East as an increasingly important market. Governments, oil and automotive industries have to work together on the implementation of emission and fuel specification. Without the latest vehicle technology being available in the region, cleaner fuels would have little effect on air quality improvement.

Q: Does the Middle East have regional fuel quality standards and specifications?

A: "The Middle East is rather a patchwork of fuel quality, very much like the Asia-Pacific region, nevertheless, there is an initiative by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates) to implement regional fuel specifications through its standardization group (GSO). National specifications are mostly driven by the domestic refining infrastructure and reflect the capability of the least developed manufacturing facilities in the respective countries. This in turn results in a situation, where much cleaner fuels from refineries having gone through modernization or having been built recently are supplied into the some domestic markets ahead of changes in specifications. National specifications do not necessarily describe a representative fuel quality of a given market, but rather give a picture of the lowest fuel quality that can be found."

Q: What are the biggest obstacles to clean fuels in the Middle East?

A: "The obstacles differ from country to country. Further developed and export-oriented countries are advanced on their plans for manufacturing cleaner fuels and the constraints are defined by the time it takes to implement refinery modernization or construction projects."

Q: What is the status of leaded fuel in the region? Which country, if anyone, continues to use it, and to what extent? When do you expect the Middle East to be lead-free?

A: "Yemen and Iraq still allow the addition of TEL (tetraethyl lead), an additive that has been phased out because of the toxicity of lead) in gasoline. The actual extent to which TEL is used is unclear. It is also unclear when the region will be completely lead free, because there are no reliable lead phase-out plans for those countries still using TEL"

Q: What about sulfur content in fuel?

A: "The United Nation's Partnership for Clean Fuel and Vehicles has published a good overview on current sulphur levels in fuels in the Middle East. From this document it is obvious that no uniform sulfur level by country exists, in particular in countries that have multiple refineries producing to different specifications. A coherent sulfur level across the region complying with Euro 5 vehicle emission specification will only be achieved well into the next decade, while individual countries will reach this milestone much earlier."

Q: How far has the region already come – how much improvement has taken place in recent years? Does anybody meet the current Euro or U.S. standards? (Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE, Yemen)

A: "One has to distinguish between the GCC countries Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates that are advanced in setting and implementing clean fuels specifications. While none of the Middle Eastern countries meet either European or U.S. standards for fuels today, the GCC countries have set themselves goals and in a joint statement issued by their standardization group, GSO, they talk about the expectation to meet fuel specifications compliant with Euro IV emission standards by 2015. This is not a mandate and will depend on the progress of refinery upgrades in respective countries. For the remaining countries outside of the GCC data and information is hard to get."

Q: How is air quality in the Middle East, and are there any government mandates that are resulting in better fuel quality and emission reductions?

A: "Though more than 75% of the population in the Gulf Countries is urbanized according to UN data, geography and demography prevents the severe air quality issues some Asian Mega cities have to deal with. PM10 levels for some Middle Eastern countries as published by the UN suggest that action on improving air quality is required. Data on actual government mandates limiting air pollutants are not known to me."

Q: What role does Middle East politics play in clean fuels?

A: "Growing population and increasing car ownership is likely to result in more awareness about the connection between fuels, emissions and air quality, which seems low at present. The trend in oil-producing ME countries to go deeper into the hydrocarbon value chain through refining and export of finished fuels will result in a modern refinery infrastructure, capable of manufacturing to the highest standards required for the global market. Consequently these fuels will also be available for the domestic markets, improving local fuel and air quality, provided associated vehicle emission legislation is implemented accordingly. It seems reasonable to expect Euro 5 compliance in GCC markets by the end of this decade."

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