Environmental, industry experts disagree over proposal to delay sulfur emissions reduction deadline

Environmental and industry opponents squared off Monday over a proposed delay of  a rule ordering refineries to reduce the sulfur content of home heating oil to 500 parts per million (PPM) by July 1, 2014.

At issue is a proposal in which New Jersey may extend that deadline for one year for Hess, which requested an extension of the timetable.

The Department of Environmental Protection held a hearing Monday on possibly granting a one-year extension to Hess from the original target date of July 1, 2014.

Jim Benton, executive director of the N.J. Petroleum Council, testified before DEP that the rule was a common-sense compromise that furthers both the causes of environmental protection and economic benefits.

But Jeff Tittel, head of the N.J. Sierra Club, said the rule – while possibly affecting only Hess – is symptomatic of a larger pattern of environmentally unfriendly practices by the Christie administration.

Benton told the DEP that “A refinery turnaround is simply that, an investment of capital, creating new jobs, new investment … resulting in a new product.  The jobs that flow from this to the region from a turnaround are significant.

“This will result in a better product for the long term while continuing to make certain supply is available,” he said.

But Tittel told the DEP that it is disturbing that after stakeholder meetings led to the adoption of this rule to reduce sulfur emissions, one company essentially can step forward, claim hardship, and delay the cause of cleaner air at a time when oil companies are logging record profits, gas exceeds $4 a gallon in some places, and decisions such as increasing N.J. Transit fares will put more cars on the road.

“We know that sulfur dioxide has a big impact on the environment,’’ Tittel said, and it can exacerbate problems with asthma and respiratory ailments.

Originally, DEP had set forth a rule that would require refineries to reduce the sulfur content of fuel to no more than 500 parts per million by July 1, 2014 from the current allowable level of 2,000 to 3,000 PPM. Then, by July 1, 2016, the sulfur content would have to be reduced to 15 PPM.

But Hess has requested a temporary waiver. It is seeking to take advantage of a provision in the rule that allows a refinery to continue to produce the so-called “high-sulfur” fuel until its next scheduled closing or “turnaround” if a refinery has such a shutdown period already scheduled within one year of July 1, 2014. According to Hess, which has a refinery in Port Reading, it is not unusual for refineries to schedule such “turnaround” periods years in advance.

In order to make the changeover to the low-sulfur fuel, a refinery will have to shut down its production equipment. In some cases and depending on the reason, shutdowns can last two weeks or more, according to Hess’ filing with DEP.

Hess stated in its DEP filing that having two such “turnarounds” – one for the changeover to low-sulfur fuel and one for other maintenance reasons – could cost a refinery millions of dollars.

DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said previously that DEP included such an option for a temporary waiver in anticipation of possible limited circumstances such as this one.

“We don’t want refineries shutting down twice in one year,” Ragonese said.  For one thing, the act of shutting down or starting up a refinery can actually increase emissions, he said.

William O’Sullivan, director of the Division of Air Quality for DEP, said that while DEP is considering this delay for the interim deadline to 500 PPM, it is not considering any delay of the second, final phase for the more stringent standards.

DEP will accept written comment until June 3.

Eric DeGesero, executive vice president of the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey, said previously they oppose any delays in moving to low-sulfur fuel even by so much as one refiner.

“We agree the date should be moved,” he said, “it should be moved up earlier rather than (pushed back) later.”

According to DeGesero, New York next year will move directly to 15 PPM, with no gradual stepdown as New Jersey is doing with the 500 PPM deadline.

”New Jersey’s stepdown to 500 (PPM) is absurd,’’ he said.

When the rule was announced, DEP stated that New York, Connecticut and Maine had recently passed legislation mandating a 15 PPM  standard, while Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia also were considering sulfur reductions.

DEP stated last year that the tougher sulfur rules will help New Jersey meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for fine particles, sulfur dioxide and ozone. They also will help the state meet improved visibility goals of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Visibility Union, of which New Jersey is a member.

  Environmental, industry experts disagree over proposal to delay sulfur emissions reduction deadline