Alaska faces cleaner diesel rules

Posted: Wednesday, April 03, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- All diesel fuel for highway vehicles must have ultra-low levels of sulfur by 2010, Alaska's top environmental official said.

But the state needs another year to study how to make that rule work in rural regions, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Michele Brown said Monday.

The state will follow the Environmental Protection Agency's nationwide rules designed to reduce pollutants from diesel-powered cars, trucks and buses, Brown said. The new rules are expected to add at least 5 cents a gallon to the price of diesel -- probably more in Alaska, Brown said.

Refining industry representatives say supply disruptions nationwide will probably boost prices by 15 to 30 cents a gallon.

Brown said the state could have objected to the EPA's plans and tried to develop its own system for reducing diesel pollution. However, those plans would have been subject to EPA approval and probably wouldn't have bought more than a year or two of delay, Brown told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Studies show diesel exhaust to be a worrisome pollutant and something that needs to be reduced, Brown said.

The state, however, asked the EPA for another year to come up with a plan for how to deal with rural Alaska.

In many remote villages, diesel for vehicles, power plants, heating oil and other uses is mixed together on barges and in village storage tanks. With the new rules, villages are faced with some expensive options.

New, separate storage tanks for the low-sulfur diesel could be built, and the fuel could be hauled in on separate barges. Or the power plants, home furnaces and everything else could just start using low-sulfur fuels. Either option would mean higher fuel prices.

Unlike the rest of the country where highway diesel is the dominant product, Alaska's refiners pump out fuel for mostly nonhighway uses such as heating oil, boats, aircraft and power plants, where sulfur content isn't limited.

The EPA announced its final ruling on diesel at the end of the Clinton administration. At the time, officials from Williams Co., which operates the North Pole refinery, suggested the plant might forego the expensive upgrades necessary to produce the low-sulfur fuel. It could be cheaper to just import low-sulfur diesel from the Lower 48.

But that raises other questions, Brown said. Will low-sulfur fuel from the Lower 48 be available in an Arctic grade? And, if so, how far will it have to be hauled?

While removing sulfur from the fuel has become the main focus of the new rules, regulators are actually chasing a separate class of pollutant called nitrogen oxides, said Tom Chapple, director of DEC's air and water quality division.

Nitrogen oxides, according to DEC, can upset the nutrient balance in lakes and rivers. In addition, medical research has shown diesel exhaust can cause breathing problems and the small particles may increase cancer risks.

The new rules will knock the sulfur content of highway diesel down to 15 parts of sulfur per million parts of diesel.

Currently, communities connected to the highway system in Alaska have a temporary exemption from nationwide rules that limit highway diesel sulfur content to 500 ppm and rural areas have an open-ended exemption. So the sulfur content in most diesel sold in Alaska now ranges from about 650 ppm to 5,000 ppm.

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