State turns to towns, tribes for low-sulfur diesel advice

PHOTO/Courtesy John Immel
Alaska petroleum distributors and companies refining diesel in Alaska have been unable to come to a consensus on phasing in new federal ultra-low sulfur diesel requirements used for highway vehicles.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which must propose a phase-in plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency next spring, asked for ideas from the industry earlier this year.

DEC will develop a proposal by early next year, but was hoping to get unified support for a proposal from firms in the fuel business.

The agency is now seeking advice from rural communities and tribal groups as to how to implement the new fuel requirements in rural Alaska.

Last spring DEC formed a task force of distributors, refiners and trucking firms and met twice. The group was ultimately unable to agree on a phase-in plan, according to Clint Farr, a DEC official working on the program.

The new ultra-low sulfur diesel requirement comes into effect in 2006, but because of its unique geographical circumstances, Alaska has been given an extension to 2010 if the state can develop a phase-in plan that is acceptable to the EPA, Farr said.

DEC Commissioner Michele Brown must submit a plan for an Alaska phase-in to EPA, and the agency staff will have a proposal prepared for Brown by February, Farr said.

The impact of the new requirements in rural areas is the most troubling aspect of the new requirements because a typical rural community now gets one shipment of diesel fuel per year, which is used for all purposes -- heating, electrical generation and fuel for vehicles.

Since the ultra-clean fuel will have to be transported and stored separately, it is a major problem in distribution.

One option for rural communities, Farr said, is to switch all diesel to ultra-low sulfur, so separate tanks and shipping are not required. But the new fuel will be more expensive, which will raise costs for generation of electricity with diesel.

Another possibility is that Alaska might request an exemption or some other kind of modification to help rural communities, which the EPA might view favorably because of the unique conditions.

However, as soon as new vehicles with 2007-year engines are brought into a community, they will need the new fuel.

The new federal rules requiring ultra-clean diesel with a maximum sulfur content of 15 parts per million went into effect last February. There is now a national 500 parts-per-million limit on sulfur in diesel, from which Alaska is exempt.

There can be no exemption for Alaska from the new requirements, however, because vehicle engines are being built to use only ultra-low sulfur diesel. When vehicles manufactured in 2007 are brought to Alaska, the new fuel will have to be available.

The 15 ppm, ultra-clean diesel standard was developed after the EPA became convinced that particulates from diesel emissions were a major cause of lung damage. With strict controls on gasoline engine emissions now in effect in the United States, the major source of health-damaging air pollution in large cities is diesel emissions from large trucks and buses.

The proposals were developed by the Clinton administration, but after a brief review the regulations were put into force by President Bush.

The ultra-clean diesel will be used in heavy trucks, buses and other larger diesel vehicles, including recreational vehicles, operating on highways.

By 2007 new emissions control equipment will be required in newly made diesel engines for highway vehicles, and the new fuel will be needed for those engines.

Although the current EPA rule does not cover smaller vehicles with diesel engines, such as light trucks and pickups, a separate EPA rule will require the same emissions control equipment on their engines as well. They will have to use the new fuel, too.

Construction and other off-road diesel vehicles are not covered under the rule, but the EPA is now engaged in a rule-making process that eventually will include these vehicles.

Stationary diesel equipment, such as engines used in electrical generation, are not covered by the rule because their emissions are controlled by other forms of regulation, mainly through permits, DEC officials have said.

The Alaska Trucking Association has estimated that the new fuel could be 20 to 25 cents per gallon more costly if it has to be imported to Alaska. Since fuel accounts for 18 percent to 20 percent of the total operating costs of typical trucking firms, the added cost of fuel will be a big hit that will ultimately be passed on in higher freight rates.

12/02/2001 - 8:00pm