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Cleaner air from improved fuel quality standards

By David Swanton - posted Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Octane Options

To enhance octane, organometallic compounds such as lead and MMT, which is available in auto stores, or compounds such as NMA, available in some Australian petrol now, could be used  These compounds are harmful to people and damaging to vehicles. All are rejected by vehicle manufacturers and should be prohibited in petrol.

Most OECD countries use one of two octane enhancers. MTBE is used in Europe and is the preferred octane enhancer for refineries and vehicle manufacturers. However, it is effectively banned in many US states and elsewhere because it pollutes groundwater when it leaks from storage tanks, even in small concentrations. The last problem Australian farmers need is undrinkable bore water. The alternative is ethanol, which is an excellent octane enhancer. In the USA, 95 percent of all petrol is blended with 10 percent ethanol. That is, almost all US petrol is E10. Australian refineries do not prefer ethanol, simply because they do not produce it. Ethanol burns cleanly and, if sourced renewably, should appeal to environmentalists, ethanol producers, sugar and related rural industries, north Queensland MPs and people who breathe.

The Australian Automobile Association is supportive of improvements to fuel quality but is also concerned about the cost effectiveness of fuel quality improvements. The benefits of high octane petrol however, need not come at great cost. E10 petrol is rated as 94 RON and currently cheaper than 91 RON petrol. There are many factors at play here, including ethanol's higher octane rating and lower energy density compared with petrol, its price competition with petrol and pricing to meet some biofuel mandates. However, with some regulatory tweaks and some deft work at the refinery (easily achievable by our refineries' excellent chemical engineers), this petrol blend could be increased to 95 RON E10 (with maximum 10 parts per million sulfur and 35 percent aromatics) at a cost comparable to that of 91 RON petrol. Premium Euro 6 quality petrol would then be available at just above a regular unleaded price. Together with the two to eight percent fuel efficiency improvements arising from a minimum 95 RON petrol in the market, there would be reduced greenhouse and noxious emissions and possibly lower net petrol prices for motorists.



Australia's choice was simple. The Government chose poorly. The Government has sacrificed air quality and people's health by retaining elevated levels of sulfur and aromatics in petrol, supporting inefficient refineries. The Government should upgrade petrol standards to Euro 6 quality, specify an octane enhancer such as ethanol, and allow the market to operate. Local refineries could choose to upgrade with or without government assistance, or fuel will be imported, as mostly occurs now.

There are many options to reduce emissions. NSW and the ACT use mainly imported petrol, and like South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory have no major refineries. Any jurisdiction can mandate more stringent Euro 6 fuel quality standards and import Euro 6 quality petrol. Although motorists are paying for vehicles engineered to meet Euro emission standards, poor petrol quality means their vehicles do not. Australians should be able to purchase better fuel and with that have greater vehicle choice, better vehicle performance, better fuel efficiency, reduced noxious and greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air and improved health. This outcome simply requires governments and fuel refiners and/or fuel importers to show leadership and act in the national interest.

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About the Author

David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.

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