FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Diesel used in cars and trucks in Bush Alaska eventually will have to meet a tough new federal standard for sulfur, though remote areas won't have to hit the goal by 2006, the deadline for drivers on the road system, federal regulators say.
The Environmental Protection Agency issued its final rule on diesel last month.
The new standard will be 15 parts of sulfur per million parts of fuel. That's far cleaner than current Alaska diesel, whose sulfur content ranges from 650 to 5,000 ppm.
The final rule also indicates the EPA will remove an open-ended exemption for Alaska's rural, off-highway regions. How soon the rule will change depends on a transition plan that the governor must develop by April 2002.
Loss of the exemption could require expensive new tanks in rural Alaska.
The new low-sulfur fuel, by EPA's figures, will probably cost an average of 5 or 6 cents a gallon more nationally.
The rest of the states already use fuel with no more than 500 ppm of sulfur. They, too, must meet the 15 ppm standard in 2006.
''The overall effect of these reductions is equivalent to removing the air pollution created by 13 million of the 14 million of today's dirty diesel trucks and buses,'' EPA Administrator Carol Browner said on Dec. 21, when announcing the new rules.
EPA is requiring new trucks and buses, starting in 2007, to be 95 percent cleaner than they are today. Manufacturers say they can't do that unless they have fuel with almost no sulfur. Sulfur damages the catalytic converters that will be added to meet the new emission limits.
The new EPA rules don't limit sulfur content in fuel used for power plants, boats, heavy equipment, home furnaces and oil drilling rigs.
While rural Alaska has relatively few diesel vehicles, getting fuel to them could become very expensive.
Diesel is often shipped to Alaska villages by barge in one or two bulk loads that go into the same storage tanks. There, it feeds not only trucks but also local power plants, heavy equipment and fishing boats. New tanks would be needed to store the low-sulfur fuel.
Refineries will have to spend millions of dollars to cut the sulfur content to 15 ppm. Williams Alaska Petroleum Inc., for example, estimates the cost at $100 million for its North Pole refinery.
Requiring highway vehicles in villages to use 15 ppm diesel ''would create severe problems in rural Alaska,'' said Richard Curtin, general counsel for Petro Star Inc., which operates refineries in North Pole and Valdez.
''Fifteen parts per million is at the lower range of detectability,'' Curtin said. If fuel was delivered in a barge tank that previously held home heating fuel, it would likely no longer meet the low-sulfur standard, he said.
''Hopefully these sorts of problems would be fleshed out by the governor's task force, and hopefully the EPA will listen,'' Curtin said.
Alaska's highway-linked areas and rural areas have had exemptions from the nationwide 500 ppm standard for highway diesel. The highway areas' exemption was through 2004; the rural exemption was permanent until the Dec. 21 change.
Curtin said he didn't think the EPA would kill the rural exemption in 2006.
''I think they're tipping their hand that 'permanent' may not mean 'permanent,''' he said.
Engine manufacturers have opposed exemptions for Alaska and elsewhere because they say they can't warranty their new motors if high-sulfur fuel is burned in them. Environmental and health groups also argued for tough standards in Alaska.
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