Sulfur in Australia petrol

RACV RoyalAuto Magazine

The quality of petrol sold in Australia is at the centre of a fierce debate, set to intensify, about future engine technology, emissions regulations and CO2 targets.

While diesel sold in Australia has no more than 10 parts per million of sulfur – considered best practice globally – petrol has much higher levels; as much as 150 parts per million in regular and 50 parts per million in premium.

Mandate lower sulfur levels

Car companies, through the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, are lobbying the federal government to mandate lower sulfur levels in petrol to allow the latest clean-burning, fuel- saving engines to be sold in Australia.

There are already many cars on sale in Australia meeting the stricter, yet-to-be-mandated Euro 6 emissions standards – predominantly cars sourced from European brands – but the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries says they are not running as efficiently and cleanly as they could if petrol quality was improved to the lower 10 parts per million sulfur levels.

Australia being left behind

“If you impose Euro 6 without the [better quality] fuel … you impose all the costs on consumers without getting the environmental benefits in reality,” says FCAI chief executive Tony Weber, who adds that Australia is in danger of being left behind in a high tech race towards cleaner and more fuel efficient vehicles if fuel quality is not improved.

“Advanced research is underpinned by 10 parts per million sulfur. There’s no point supplying those products to markets that don’t have the appropriate fuel.”

The oil retailers are in no hurry to upgrade their refineries to improve the sulfur content of petrol, arguing the benefits are eroded by increased costs – both in upgrading refineries and in refining the fuel to tighter tolerances – saying costs would be passed on to consumers.

No net benefit

“The reason Australia has not moved is because it has been shown on a number of occasions there is no net community benefit of lower sulfur levels in petrol,” says Paul Barrett, the CEO of the Australian Institute of Petroleum.

“A number of the government reports have shown that Euro 6 vehicles can run on premium unleaded petrol.”

Henry O’Clery, the director of Future Climate Australia, a not-for-profit environmental organisation, says Euro 6 vehicles can run on the lower quality fuel available in Australia, although he says it’s only a matter of time until stricter fuel standards will be required.

“Ultimately we should go that way,” Mr O’Clery says. “But it doesn’t matter in terms of this argument about emissions standards now because you could run the same emissions standards as they have in Europe right now with the fuel we’ve got without any problem.”

Missing out on best fuel efficiency

But, Mr O’Clery says, because of the high sulfur levels in petrol here, many car buyers are missing out on getting the best engines with the best fuel efficiency.

“The powertrain technology is usually obsolete,” he says, except from manufacturers that don’t have two production streams – one with the old and another with the new engines.

“Continual review of fuel quality standards would enable vehicle manufacturers to ensure that the most modern engine technologies are available to members,” Michael Case, RACV's manager vehicle engineering says.

RACV supports vehicle emission reduction measures

Tightening fuel-quality standards to reduce the sulfur content of petrol to match more stringent international standards will, he says, remove one of the barriers to high-technology low-emissions engines reaching Australia. Passenger vehicles contribute about 17 per cent of all emissions in Australia and, Mr Case says, RACV strongly supports measures to reduce vehicle emissions in proportion to other contributing sectors, so long as the costs of doing so don’t affect motorists in a negative way.

Written by Toby Hagon
June 01, 2016


Sulfur in fuel: Why it matters

  • The sulfur content limits for Australian petrol are relatively high. Sulfur is found naturally in crude oil in varying amounts, depending on the source.
  • Low sulfur petrol would allow Australians to drive the latest low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicles.
  • Modern lean-burn engines use less fuel but create more oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and therefore require high-tech catalytic converters to reduce the levels of NOx from the exhaust.
  • These high-tech catalytic converters can be damaged by high sulfur fuel and this reduces the usability of lean-burn engines.

Where our petrol comes from

  • Most of Australia's petrol is refined from imported crude oil at refineries in Perth, Geelong, Altona and Brisbane.
  • Upgrading the refineries to remove sulfur would require significant investment from the oil companies.
  • A significant proportion of our petrol is imported as refined product from South East Asia. This proportion is increasing.

Petrol made easy

There are several types of petrol in Australia. Which one is best for your car and which has the lowest sulfur levels? Read our quick guide.


> Octane rating: 94-95 RON
> Sulfur content: up to 150 parts per million
> What is it: Regular (91 RON) unleaded petrol which has been blended with up to 10% ethanol, a form of alcohol.
> When to use it: E10 should only be used if your car is driven regularly, as the alcohol can combine with water and then settle in your fuel tank which may damage your engine. Regular travel prevents this process.
> Will it damage my car: E10 is for use in newer model cars. Follow the vehicle manufacturer’s instructions as it may cause damage to some older engines, particularly rubber components.
> E10 should not be used as a substitute for premium unleaded fuel unless it is recommended by the vehicle manufacturer.

Regular Unleaded Petrol

> Octane rating: 91 RON
> Sulfur content: up to 150 parts per million
> What is it: Regular unleaded petrol – the standard fuel for vehicles in Australia since the 1980s.
> When to use it: All the time if the fuel is suitable for your vehicle – check your handbook.
> When not to use it: If your vehicle requires higher octane fuel.
> Will it damage my car: It shouldn’t if your vehicle manufacturer specifies it to run on 91 octane fuel.

Premium Unleaded Petrol (PULP)

> Octane rating: 95 RON
> Sulfur content: up to 50 parts per million
> What is it: This is the ‘standard’ premium petrol available in Australia. It is also the minimum unleaded petrol available in many European countries.
> When to use it: If your vehicle requires it – many European and performance cars require this fuel as a minimum.
> When not to use it: If your vehicle does not require this fuel.
> Some vehicles are technically able to improve performance or fuel consumption using this fuel but it is unlikely this will offset the increased cost.
> Will it damage my car: It shouldn’t, unless your vehicle requires 98 octane fuel.

Ultra Premium Unleaded Petrol

> Octane rating: 98 RON
> Sulfur content: up to 50 parts per million
> What is it: This is the flagship fuel for most retailers and is the most heavily marketed petrol. It typically has more detergents and additives in it than other petrol.
> When to use it: If your vehicle requires 98 octane fuel – this is only the case for some high performance cars.
> When not to use it: If your vehicle does not require this fuel. Although this fuel may lower your fuel consumption it is unlikely t his will offset the increased cost.
> Will it damage my car: It shouldn’t.

Engine cleaning petrol

What is it: Most Ultra Premium Unleaded petrols have detergents that claim to clean your engine as you drive.

Blake Harris