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Energy Tomorrow Radio: Episode - 122 A Milestone for ULSD Fuel

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted November 23, 2010

In today's episode, I interview Patrick Kelly, API's policy advisor for downstream fuels issues, about the completion of the transition from low sulfur diesel to Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) fuel for highway travel.

Use the audio player below to listen to information about the transition and follow along with the show notes. I hope you find the podcast informative.

00:17 Dec. 1, 2010 marks a milestone for the U.S. transition to Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel fuel (ULSD). On that date, this redesigned diesel fuel will become the only diesel fuel sold throughout the country for highway travel. API's Patrick Kelly has been involved in this transition and is here in the studio with us today.

00:42 First of all, how does ULSD fuel differ from the type of diesel that has been in use for diesel-powered cars and trucks in the United States for a long time?

00:53 Mr. Kelly: ULSD is a clean-burning diesel fuel with a sulfur content of only 15 parts per million (ppm). This is a 97 percent reduction from the 500 ppm diesel fuel that has been in use since the early '90s. Before that, diesel fuel commonly had about 2,500 ppm sulfur.

01:11 How did this transition from one form of diesel fuel to another begin?

01:18 Mr. Kelly: The transition really began back in 2000 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed tighter emission standards for diesel vehicles, which necessitated a cleaner fuel. ULSD production really began in earnest in 2006 after refineries were able to make the upgrades. Those upgrades cost the industry more than $8 billion. The transition for highway diesel fuel that began in 2006 will end on Dec. 1 when all highway diesel sold must be ULSD.

01:47 Why did the EPA mandate this new fuel?

01:52 Mr. Kelly: In an effort to improve air quality, the EPA required drastic emission reductions for diesel vehicles. To achieve the new standards, manufacturers redesigned diesel engines and equipped them with advanced exhaust aftertreatment systems. These systems necessitated a lower sulfur fuel. EPA rightly viewed the fuel, engine and vehicle as a system that needs to work together to achieve those tighter standards. The resulting emission reductions of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter is equivalent to removing the pollution of more than 90 percent of the existing older trucks and buses when the fleet is entirely turned over in 2030.

02:39 Is this fuel required for certain vehicle models?

02:43 Mr. Kelly: Yes, it's required for 2007 and newer highway diesel trucks and cars, but it's recommended for use in any diesel vehicle. In fact, on Dec. 1, it will be the only available highway diesel fuel in the marketplace.

03:02 So the fuel is safe for older model engines?

03:06 Mr. Kelly: It's absolutely safe. There are really no expected changes in performance. The new fuel is entirely compatible with the whole fleet.

03:24 I understand that the transition to ULSD fuel is still underway for marine and locomotive engines. When will it become the only fuel available for those diesel-powered engines?

03:38 Mr. Kelly: The non-highway diesel fuel market was divided into non-road and locomotive/marine. The non-road market, which includes farm tractors and construction equipment, will also transition to ULSD in 2010. The locomotive/marine fuels will transition in 2012. There's an exception for small refiners to continue to produce 500 ppm sulfur fuel until 2014. After 2014, all highway, non-road and locomotive/marine diesel fuel will be ULSD.

04:19 Does this new fuel look or smell any different than the traditional diesel fuel that most people have been aware of for many years?

04:28 Mr. Kelly: ULSD is slightly lighter in color, may have a slight color tint, and has a less of a smell because of the lower amount of sulfur. But, its performance and operability in an engine are identical to the diesel fuel we've been using since diesel fuel was first introduced.

04:47 You mentioned that the refineries started making these fuels in about 2006 and that they had to make a number of changes in order to produce it. What precisely did they have to do?

04:59 Mr. Kelly: There are a lot of changes that needed to be made in refineries that take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. The permitting process, the designing and construction of equipment take a long time. The EPA allowed for a pretty long transition period for all of those changes to happen. The amount of lead time that the EPA gave them was really one of the keystones of success to the ULSD program. The transition to ULSD is perhaps the most costly and complex fuel change that the U.S. fuel market has ever seen.

05:40 And it has worked.

05:42 Mr. Kelly: Yes, absolutely. ULSD is completely compatible with the entire fleet, no problems have surfaced and it has been a very successful rollout.

05:54 If it doesn't look any different, smell too much different, how do consumers know they're pumping this new fuel into their diesel-powered vehicles?

06:06 Mr. Kelly: Since 2006, the EPA has required all diesel and heating-oil pump dispensers to be labeled according to their sulfur content. The only exception to that is California, which has been all ULSD since 2006 and thus didn't require labels. The labels will clearly tell you whether it's a 15 ppm ULSD or it's a 500 ppm low sulfur diesel. Again, after Dec. 1, you won't see any low sulfur diesel 500 ppm for the highway fleet, but you will still see some for non-road and locomotive/marine. However, even in those markets, ULSD has been the predominate fuel.

06:50 Very good. Patrick Kelly, thank you so much for bringing us up to speed on the on-going transition to ULSD fuel and for joining us today on Energy Tomorrow Radio.


Jane Van Ryan was formerly senior communications manager and new media advisor at the American Petroleum Institute (API), where she wrote blog posts and produced podcasts and videos. Before coming to API, Jane managed communications for a large science and engineering corporation, and for a top-tier research and engineering university. A few years ago, you might have seen her in your living room when she delivered the news on television. Jane officially retired from API in 2011 and now freelances as an independent communications consultant when not gardening at her farm in Virginia.