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.