In July, the Ontario Minister of the Environment made a move that I have been awaiting for a long time. Starting this September, gasoline producers will be required to report sulphur levels.
I have spoken in less-than-glowing terms about the intransigence of some in the petroleum sector with respect not just to the reporting of sulphur levels, but also in defending the sulphur levels themselves. The latest announcement should thankfully take a little bit of the wind out of their sails, but it’s only part of the solution.
Sulphur, you may know, is one of the key contaminants in gasoline. It increases sulphur dioxide emissions and the creation of tiny sulphate particles, which contribute to smog and acid rain. Sulphur also affects the performance of a car’s catalytic converter, reducing its efficiency and causing cars to emit more pollutants. Ontario’s fuel is the worst in the country, with more than 20 times what is acceptable in some other parts of the world, where 30 parts per million (ppm) is the limit.
“Sulphur is bad for our air quality, and with low-sulphur gasoline, your car will pollute less, run more efficiently and last longer,” said Environment Minister Chris Stockwell.
In fact, automakers have blamed high North American, and particularly Canadian, sulphur levels for preventing more effective emissions control systems from being employed. Plus, it has also been blamed for problems with fuel senders and other systems.
Under the new legislation manufacturers, blenders, and importers of gasoline in Ontario will be required to report the average level of sulphur in their products four times a year as measured at the refinery. These results will be posted on a ministry website (www.ene.gov.on.ca). It doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Information per se has never really been the biggest part of the problem. Quarterly updates will be an improvement, but organizations like Friends of the Earth have been regularly pointing out the high sulphur levels. Anybody could get the information through the Access to Information Act, but few do.
There was a saying I learned back in journalism school: If you want to hide something, put it in the public record. The sheer volume of information there will obscure its existence.
Sulphur content shouldn’t be hidden away on a website; it should be posted at the pump, right beside the octane rating. And not as some mealy-mouthed statement that “the fuel in this pump meets all current sulphur level requirements.” Give consumers the number. Octane ratings are there so that consumers can put the right formulation in their cars; it prevents them from inadvertently damaging their property. It’s a consumer protection. Sulphur content should be viewed the same way. Tell consumers that Esso gas is highest at 730 ppm sulphur content. Let Imperial Oil get the credit when they change that, too, but give credit now to companies like Sunoco (200 ppm) or Irving (31 ppm) that are consistently at the low end of the scale. They’ll all have to meet 150 ppm by December 2004, with the phase-in period, but that’s two years off, two years of offering miles over mileage, points over product.
Forget for a minute that there’s an environmental issue here. Consumers have the right to know if the gasoline from one retailer might harm their vehicle more than that from another. Sulphur is harmful to consumers’ cars, but they have no way of knowing what they are buying when they are buying it.
Legislation that does not put the facts in front of consumers at the point of purchase is running on empty, destined to be abandoned by the roadside.
–Andrew Ross, Editor
Temperature Control–and its components–arrives just in time for winter planning. Plus, we’ll look at issues in the Heavy Duty market. ASE Test Preparation rounds out our September offering.