In Conversation with: Michael Walsh

Sulphur is the New Lead

Michael Walsh may be one of the few voices who have credibility when he predicts that the clean-fuel landscape in Asia Pacific and the world will change dramatically in only a few years.

Getting to know our interviewee

Consider his track record: He was one of the pioneers of the movement to remove toxic lead content from fuel. When he worked as a young engineer in New York City’s environmental protection agency early in his career in the 1970s, he was part of an effort that banned the sale of leaded gasoline in the city. The ban was successfully challenged in court.

But Walsh didn’t give up. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1974 and became director of the motor vehicle pollution control program with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he helped launch a national program to phase out lead. Every service station was required to sell at least one grade of unleaded fuel under that program.

Walsh recalls attending an industry meeting in the 70's in Detroit, Michigan, about the impact of lead in gasoline. He especially remembers passionate arguments between auto and oil industry representatives – the former saying, “We need lead‐free fuel,” and the latter saying “No, you don’t.”

“It was an eye‐opener,” Walsh said during a recent interview. “Very early on in my career I became aware of this issue and began to follow the health literature. Every time I turned around there was a new study showing adverse impact of lead from a health standpoint.”

Without lead‐free fuel, automakers could not introduce environment‐friendly catalytic converter technology on cars. Europe eventually got on the lead‐free bandwagon with the U.S.

The significant turning point in the fight against lead was 2000, when China and India went to lead‐free gasoline. With that development and the subsequent phase out across Africa theworld’s fuel supply was largely lead‐free, with the exception of a few countries such as Myanmar and North Korea.

Since then he has become a sort of friendly nag to Asian governments, working as an expert, a consultant and a resource, urging their environmental agencies to move forward with cleaning up their vehicles and fuels and to develop motor vehicle pollution strategies.

Walsh is an independent consultant. His clients have included foundations, foreign governments, private companies, automobile manufacturers and non‐profit organizations. He recently has worked on clean fuel and vehicle pollution projects for the United Nations and for the Asian Development Bank.

Now, sulfur is the new lead, and Walsh has set his sights on convincing Asia to remove it from the fuel supply.

“I think the lead fight is pretty much done,” Walsh said. “I consider that a major success story. Lots of people played very important roles in that. Not just me.

“Sulfur is the big fuel challenge we are facing around the world right now,” Walsh said. “Some use the phrase, ‘Sulfur is the lead of the 21st century.’ In order to use advanced diesel control technology, the particulate filter which gets all the very small and hazardous particulates, we have to have sulfur down to 10 ppm.”

It appears the world has a ways to go. China and India have gone to 350 ppm sulfur content in diesel fuel nationwide, with a few of their big cities down to as low as 50 ppm. Brazil is scheduled to introduce very low sulfur fuel in 2012, but will still have high sulfur fuel available. In Mexico, sulfur is limited only along its U.S. border. The rest of the country is still 500 ppm.

Walsh said that in Asia, Beijing is leading the way toward cleaner fuels and tightening emissions standards, along with Japan and South Korea, which also have aggressive standards and policies.

Countries lagging behind include Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia, for instance, didn’t go lead‐free until 2006.

“In major cities ‐ Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City ‐ the congestion and vehicle population growth is very very high. Because they have not been able to get the very clean low‐sulfur fuels, and because a number of these countries still use very high levels of metallic additives such as MMT, the pollution levels are quite high. That is a very difficult and serious challenge. Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam pose very significant challenges.”

Asian countries need to alter fuel content to effect change, Walsh said.

“The key to cleaning up vehicles is now clearly linked to the fuel. Vehicle pollution standards andfuel quality have to be treated as a system. Fuel quality itself has become the biggest impediment to cleaning up the vehicle pollution because the most sophisticated control policies rely on clean fuels and if you don’t have clean fuels, that will damage or in some cases destroy” vehicle pollution control technology and equipment, Walsh said.

Walsh said he sees progress. The first step was getting the lead out. Next is sulfur. He has been invited in recent years to work with the governments of Thailand and Vietnam.

But Walsh acknowledged it’s more technically difficult to deal with the sulfur issue. Lead is added to fuel; sulfur is inherently part of the crude oil and must be removed. “You have to invest in taking it out. It’s a more challenging issue for many of the countries.”

“Our first priority was getting the lead out. Now we’re focused on getting sulfur levels down, to get down to 50 ppm for both gasoline and diesel.”

North America, Western Europe and Japan are leaders in clean fuels and pollution reduction. Walsh would place Asia next on the list.

“They are moving more rapidly than Latin America and certainly than Africa, but the challenge in Asia is the vehicle population is growing more rapidly so they have to move more quickly than others. China for example is now the largest vehicle producer and consumer in the world. Ten years ago they were nothing.”

Walsh said it’s not easy to overcome political forces and move from discussion and debate to action.

“My own personal philosophy is to find in these countries the champion ‐ a person or ministry or organization ‐ that shares your view and goals and try to give them the technical information and support they need to be able to prevail in this internal technological debate.”

He has ambitious goals.

“My personal target, driven as much as anything by my age, is to try to get at least the four big guys – China, India, Brazil and Mexico ‐ all four to be at the state of the art for both vehicle standards and fuel quality ‐ by 2015. That’s an ambitious target, but that’s what I’m trying to do.

“It’s going to be tough. If you don’t set tough goals you don’t get anywhere.”

Walsh, an engineer by training, said that even with all the challenges and obstacles, he remains an optimist at heart. “Occasionally when I get a little discouraged I take a look back and see how far we’ve come. Forty years ago we tried to ban lead in New York City and lost, but today it’s a global success. I’m always optimistic we’re going to move forward on these issues.”

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