State Agency Pushes Back Deadline for Cleaner Fuel Oil

Department of Environmental Protection waives requirement for lower sulfur content in home heating oil

The state has decided to extend a deadline requiring oil refineries in New Jersey to reduce the sulfur content in fuel oil, a move sought by the Hess refinery in Port Reading as a way of avoiding millions of dollars in unanticipated expenditures.

The extension of the clean air rule was granted by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to comply with a request by Hess to avoid having to shut down the refinery a couple of times during the year. That would have cost the company millions and may have affected supplies of home heating oil, according to the agency.

In practical terms, the one-year extension to Hess and other refineries to meet a lower sulfur content in the fuel should have little impact, according to industry lobbyists, because other states are moving forward with tighter standards. That should force most refineries in the region to produce fuel with lower sulfur content.

Ironically, the extension to the proposed rule would allow the agency to waive certain regulations on a case-by-case basis, which environmentalists say the agency already has the authority to do under many laws.

The sulfur measure, first proposed by the Corzine administration but delayed by the new administration, aims to help the state achieve federal air quality standards for fine particulates, sulfur dioxide and ground-level ozone. In granting an extension of one year to July 1, 2015, refineries will have until that date to reduce the amount of sulfur content to 500 parts per million (ppm) for fuel oil, down from current levels ranging above 2,000 ppm.

Eric DeGesero, executive director of the New Jersey Fuel Merchants, said the one-year extension should not have much of an impact because other states, such as New York, are requiring refineries to meet a 15 ppm standard by July 1, 2012. That is the standard already in place for diesel fuel used in trucks, buses and other vehicles so it makes little sense to overhaul refinery equipment to meet the 500 ppm standard when that fuel would only be allowed in New Jersey, he said.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, criticized the delay, saying it may be a violation of the State Implementation Plan (SIP), a document that is approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a blueprint for cleaning up New Jersey’s smog-fouled air.

In the past, the courts have not viewed favorably changes in the plan. Former Gov. Thomas Kean’s scheme to have motorists inspect their cars on an odd-even basis depending upon the year, was overturned by the courts as a violation of SIP.

“It shows this administration will do whatever the business community wants,” said Tittel, noting the regulation had been held up by the Governor’s Executive Order #1 and then the Red Tape Review Commission.

To DeGesero, however, the important part of the rule proposal is retaining a July 1, 2016 deadline to lower the sulfur content in fuel to 15 ppm. At that level, his members can sell smaller equipment to customers, a step which will reduce fuel use and even make existing furnaces more efficient, DeGesero said.

In its rule proposal, the state said it anticipates that most refineries will be able to produce lower sulfur content fuel without the extension. Also, by avoiding multiple shutdowns of refineries, the agency said it might avoid potential price spikes of home heating fuel.

As for air quality, the rule would have reduced sulfur emissions by more than 1,000 tons if it had not been extended.