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It’s an issue that’s been described as trucking’s own Y2K.

While engine makers say they’ll be able to uphold their end of the EPA emissions standards deal (introduce new truck engines that cut NOx and particulate matter [pm] by 90 percent of 2004 levels to 0.01-g/hp-hr by 2007 for pm, and 0.02-g/hp-hr by 2010 for NOx), they’re worried the oil companies may not be able to meet the ’07 requirement they signed on for — reducing the sulfur content of diesel fuel from 500 parts per million (ppm) to 15 ppm by summer 2006. That’s what oil companies need to achieve for compatibility with the new ’07-ready engine models and their exhaust aftertreatment devices.

“You have the ultra-low sulfur fuel (ULSF), with clean burning engines, with appropriate lubricants, and emissions aftertreatment, so we feel as an industry that you need all the pieces of the puzzle in order to have the complete picture,” says Cummins’ Cyndi Nigh, manager of On-Highway Communications. “And if we don’t have 15 ppm, the puzzle isn’t complete.”

While there’s been no confirmation that higher sulfur levels will shut ’07 engines down, sulfur content significantly higher than 15 ppm would most definitely affect diesel particulate filters.

“Fuel with higher levels of sulfur could reduce the effectiveness of the diesel particulate filter’s [DPF] catalyst, which would require more active regeneration cycles of the DPF. This could lead to shorter operational life for the DPF and a small increase in fuel used for active regeneration,” says Anthony Greszler, Volvo Powertrain’s vice president of engineering.

Furthermore, adds Nigh, new ’07 engines running on diesel higher than 15 ppm would simply not be compliant with the newest round of stringent EPA emission regulations. “If you don’t have 15, what comes out into the atmosphere won’t meet the EPA standard for ’07,” she says.

While the oil companies say they’re working hard to meet both the ultra-low sulfur standard in both fuel and lubes, recent attempts by the oil industry to lobby Washington for relaxed standards has most truck and engine makers at attention. “There’s a lot more to this story to develop yet,” Greg Gauger, Caterpillar’s director of On-Highway Power Systems told Today’s Trucking.

Nigh says that while engine OEs are partnering with oil companies in helping them achieve the standard, they will not under any circumstance support easing the 15 ppm limit. “We’re adamantly opposed to relaxing the pipeline sulfur requirement,” she says. “We just have to have it at 15.”

The hurdle for the oil companies isn’t the issue of producing ULSF in the lab — which can be done despite its own set of challenges and expenses — but in fact maintaining the 15-ppm level throughout the supply chain, says Brian Kenney, senior adviser of Fuels and Additives for Petro Canada.

“The uncertainties have to do with distribution and handling, which relates to future supply. There’s not much wiggle room,” he told Today’s Trucking. “This could be a rough transition since all these products flow in common carrier pipelines that come into contact with other products on the interface.”

What could happen, explains Kenney, is that ULSF produced at even lower than 15 ppm will travel through “dead spaces” where valves isolate branch lines from the rest of the pipeline. There, it can mix with remnants of other products, for example furnace oil, and alter the sulfur content. “So you start off with eight, and it turns to 15 or 20,” Kenney continues, “then it gets to a terminal and you get some contaminant that adds ppm; then you put it in a truck and there’s some residue; and then it goes to a bulk plant, and there’s even more. So, every time you handle it you add a couple ppm or greater.”

Oil companies therefore must anticipate how much ppm will be added during distribution and manufacture the diesel accordingly, says Markham, Ont.-based Clinton Smith, who’s with Imperial Oil’s Marketing and Technical Service.

“The soft underbelly is you have to make a judgment on how much sulfur the fuel is going to pick up, because right now the system is saturated with sulfur from the current fuel supply,” he says. “You have to manufacture lower, around 8 (ppm). Yes, it’s a very large challenge, but my understanding is it will be met.”

Both Kenney and Smith say that whatever comes out at the end of the pipeline higher than 15 ppm will not be sold to the on-highway sector. Smith says that if some refinery production misses the 15 ppm mark, that fuel can be shipped off to the off-highway market. (Sulfur levels for off-highway engine fuel fall to 500 ppm from 3,000 in 2007 and to 15 ppm by 2010). “That actually makes it kind of convenient where we’ll have an outlet for anything that seems to get off-spec,” says Smith.

Convenient for the oil companies and off-road users, that is. But what about on-highway availability?

Kenney admits there’s a chance the on-highway sector may be scrambling for ULSF if too much of the supply comes out higher than 15 ppm and in effect gets diverted to other markets.

Such a scenario is less likely in Canada where longer, intricate delivery systems are less common. Diesel arriving at retail pumps with a sulfur content of 15 ppm shouldn’t be a big problem. However, the complicated logistics of U.S. pipelines could very well pinch availability and drive up costs.

“It’s not like you can truck [off-spec fuel] back to the refinery S so what it’ll do is withdraw and degrade supply,” Kenney says. “The more people that don’t do it perfectly, the more of a supply issue there’ll be [for on-highway].”

In fact, history is not on the industry’s side. In the early ’90s the EPA mandated that the sulfur limit be dropped to 500 ppm from 3,500 ppm. The transition sparked refinery shortages and skyrocketing price hikes at the pump across North America.

Will history repeat itself, or are the oil folks confident that they’ll meet both the 15 ppm standard and ensure mass ULSF availability by the EPA’s mandated deadline?

“I’m confident that we’ll be able to meet the customers’ needs. But there are so many issues with distribution, so many levels of complexity, that we might not be able to get there without some heartburn,” Kenney says. “That said, our objective is clear, and that’s to meet the requirement.”

Like the initial drop to 500 ppm — and when the auto sector was forced to eliminate leaded gasoline — pulling out of the gates may prove to be extremely challenging for everyone, but eventually the industry will right itself, Kenney predicts. “Will it be a disaster? Maybe. Or it could be a non-event like Y2K. That’s what we’re hoping for,” says Kenney.

“My guess is that at first in the post-15 ppm world, we’ll have to treat [ULSF] diesel like we do jet fuel — like gold and protect it at all costs. But eventually it’ll smooth over.”

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