Risky Fumes: The coming diesel regulatory shakeup

Risky Fumes: The coming diesel regulatory shakeup

The VW emission-cheating scandal has drawn a great deal of media attention, sparking public outrage and casting all sorts of doubts about the once promising greener nature of Diesel engines in light duty vehicles.

Concerns over the health hazards of Nitrogenous Oxides and Particulate Matter emissions of Diesel engines could prompt the biggest regulatory shock to fuels and engines yet, after the prohibition of lead as an anti-knock agent that was found to be highly neurotoxic.

Again, the oil and transport industry faces a conundrum between energy efficiency and public health hazards.

Nitrogenous Oxides (NOx), Sulfur Dioxides (SO2), and Particulate Matter (PM) exhaled by Diesel engines have been somehow overlooked and their regulation relaxed, as governments and societies set their attention to the more familiarly known Greenhouse Gases (GHG) such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

This focus on environment-affecting emissions has deflected the attention away from the health-affecting ones.

Source: Environmental Leader

Source: Environmental Leader

Looking at exhaust pollution in a general sense, transportation accounts for just 12-17% of GHG emissions, and from those some 75-80% comes out of road transport exhausts.

However, this is not the whole picture, as the figures and proportions drastically change when looking through the spectrum of other non-greenhouse gases.

Tragically, EU nations have pushed consumers to switch to Diesel, by adding taxes to downstream gasoline and cars upon their CO2 emissions per kilometer. This effectively curbed carbon gases but paradoxically fostered the generation of more health-hazardous elements such as NOx, SO2, and PMs.

The VW emissions cheating scandal has shed light upon the shady business practices of automakers, but yet more importantly about the hazardous nature of the emissions covered by automakers and overlooked by regulators, prompting a critical review of the public health dimension of the issue.

Talks in Paris, to be concluded next December, will likely re-assess the importance of these widely overlooked pollutants (NOx, SO2, PM) after the public notoriety of the automakers scandal. The meeting will also generate a new set of aims that could regulate the use of Diesel across the board, from passengers to industrial engines.

When zooming away from the passenger dimension of the quandary, the real issue comes into perspective, as we get a clutch of the real magnitude of industrial emissions.

The extent of the problem grows exponentially when considering that Diesel used by cars is almost irrelevant when compared to the sheer weight of its industrial use. The vast majority of maritime vessels, trucks, public transportation vehicles, and even military vehicles worldwide run on Diesel fuel.

Source: WEF

Source: WEF

Looking at the pollution footprint of logistics, trucks account for 57% of world’s Greenhouse Emission Gases (in CO2), while vessels just 17%.

But here is the catch: when it comes to health hazardous emissions such as NOx or PM, ocean freight generates between 32% and 42% of total emissions, almost as much as trucks.  

So when looking at health damaging emissions we can identify land and sea logistics as the leviathan of global pollution.

Nearly 90% of world trade is seaborne, and 9% goes overland, meaning that virtually all products in the market have a diesel footprint in a bigger or lesser degree.

This in turn entails that tougher regulations over Diesel emissions could have a direct impact on freight costs and ultimately upon prices.

Emissions control distortions

Social advocacy on this respect was championed by Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Climate Change Panel with whom he shared the Nobel Peace Prize award. Environmental awareness campaigns awaken public attention on the irreversible and drastic effects of atmospheric pollution.

Carbon Dioxide became the primary suspect.

In the effort of curbing pollution to prevent an environmental catastrophe, we developed a fixation with carbon particles, while – unintentionally – ignoring more immediately dangerous ones for public health.

The Kyoto Protocol (KP) focused on curbing six different Greenhouse Gasses (GHG) and simplified the problem by indexing those under an equivalent in Carbon Dioxide (CO2), allowing a gross calculation of emissions to exchange in the market of carbon credit.

However, the biased attention devoted to carbon emissions – the OECD has suggested – overlooked other abundant atmospheric constituents that are now found to be highly risky for human health.

Back in 1999, MIT researchers published a paper in the Nature Journal in which they issued an alert of the perils of ignoring the effects of several combustion gasses that were largely underplayed and even ignored in the KP.

“Our analysis shows that the larger errors come from failure to account for interactive and climate effects of gases that affect atmospheric composition but are not included in the protocol (CO, NOx, SOx).”

Medical research in the US has shown that the minuscule NOx Particles could be responsible for up to 50,000 premature deaths, mainly related to heart failures, and some 29,000 in the UK.

Source: NRDC

Source: NRDC

Damage assessment is further complicated when factoring in the fact that NOx helps forming fine dusts known as Particle Matter (PM).

PM is harmful enough to cause a wide array of health problems, including lung damage and pre-natal autism.

Diesel use in the US is rather weak among light duty vehicles, given the nation’s energy independence that renders gasoline cheaper. Contrarily, the sensitivity of EU countries to oil commodities has led EU authorities as they systematically added taxes on gasoline to curtail CO2 emissions, while relaxing NOx, SO2, and PM regulations so to foster the use of thermally efficient diesel engines and reduce energy imports.

The VW scandal is simply the most complete and illustrative case of how this tragedy unfolded.

A paradoxical combination of political goodwill to curb carbon emissions and oversight created a gray area that automakers found profitable to exploit. All at the cost of public health.

Governments across the globe will be looking for rapid measures to tackle the now exposed Diesel pollution problem, and the logical step would be aiming at the fuel refining standards, as the NOx and PM emissions could be reduced by limiting sulfur impurities that are a known element of Diesel fuels.

The EU, the USm and some medium sized economies have already begun this process in stages since 2006. However, the majority of Asian nations lag far behind, although having 15 of world’s 20 most polluted cities.

A rapid transition towards Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel is likely to take place across the emerging economies, but this fuel standard will pose a challenge to refineries, tankers, and pipelines alike.

For the upstream sector, light crude must be extracted, since heavy crude such as the Venezuelan one contains sulfur in very high proportions, making it less profitable to refine.

Refineries have an ever heavier burden, having to spend millions in technological updates to achieve the purity levels required by ULSD standards.

The downstream sector will have to require that pipelines, tankers, and stations have a great degree of cleanliness, as the liquid could easily get contaminated and lose its standard.

Wise business leaders should understand this to be the prelude of a new era of regulations, extensive as greenhouse gases controls, and permanent as the prohibition of lead in gasoline.  

About Author

Martin De Angelis

Martin F. De Angelis is a political and security risks analyst with a focus on Latin America. He has lived and worked in the US, UK and Cuba. He is a former US DoS Fulbright Scholar and UK FCO Chevening Fellow. Martin has been broadcast by BBC, AlJazeera, SkyNewsHD, Euronews and other media. He holds a Licentiate degree in Political Science from the University of Buenos Aires, an MA in Strategy and Geopolitics from the Army War College of Argentina and an MSc in International Relations Theory by the London School of Economics [LSE] with Merits.