In Response to Air Quality Concerns, Ecopetrol Has Reduced Sulfur Content of Diesel Fuel Closer to U.S. Levels
Ecopetrol (NYSE: EC) (BVC: ECOPETROL) announced this week that it has reduced the sulfur content within the diesel fuel it produces.
The lower particulate figures have come gradually over the past six months as part of an ongoing push begun in March following widespread criticism of the fuel’s contribution to air-quality problems in Medellín, the wider Aburrá Valley region, and other areas in Colombia.
The state-controlled oil company’s data for September showed that the diesel it distributed across Colombian during the month had an average of 17 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur. In Medellín, the city where pollutants have drawn the most headlines and attention, the diesel delivered had an average sulfur content of 14 ppm, according to the Bogotá-based firm.
Ecopetrol noted that this is now well below Colombia’s legal maximum limit, which is high compared to much of the developed world at 50 ppm, and nearing “world class” standards for diesel.
“The company is delivering to the country a diesel of superior quality that is on a par with the most high international standards,” said Ecopetrol in a statement.
The United States’ environmental watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), began regulating sulfur in 1993. In 2006, it strengthened its rules to phase in a mandated upper limit of 15 ppm, which has become the nationwide standard.
Last year, Ecopetrol’s diesel fuel contained an average of 28 ppm, nearly twice the permissible level in the United States.
This figure grew even higher early in 2018 when Medellín was suffering through the worst of its air-quality concerns. The January nationwide average was 32 ppm and this rose further to 33 ppm in February, according to company data.
Compared to the diesel delivered to Medellín in years past, even these high numbers represented a significant reduction. In 2012, Colombia’s second largest city was receiving diesel fuel with 50 ppm of sulfur, per Ecopetrol.
On March 2 of this year, following widespread criticism from environmental advocates and complaints from citizens worried about their health, Ecopetrol agreed with public officials in Medellín and surrounding areas to reduce the sulfur content of its diesel.
The subsequent reduction to 14 ppm in the city, and nationwide to 17 ppm, “was achieved thanks to investments in the refineries, the optimization of several processes, and improvement in fuel transportation and logistics,” according to the company, which operates refineries in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and Barrancabermeja in the eastern Colombian department of Santander.
In its agreement with local officials, Ecopetrol had only guaranteed that it would supply lower-sulfur diesel during the months of the year when local climate and weather conditions most exacerbated the effect of the higher particulate concentration.
But Ecopetrol President Felipe Bayón said last week that this policy change will now be permanent.
Beyond Medellín, the company said that it has outlined a further “improvement path for the coming years” to continue lowering the sulfur content of diesel fueled used all across Colombia.
In another effort to curb air quality concerns, national investment bank Báncoldex announced that it would not provide financing for any public transportation vehicles that run on diesel, instead opting to incentivize greener alternatives.
“We are participating in a cleaner alternative through this decision, which may mean a sacrifice of our financial interests but constitutes a reaffirmation of a policy in line with improving quality of life of our population,” said Mario Suárez, president of Bancóldex, about the bank’s decision to end financing for diesel-guzzling vehicles.
While much of the attention this year has focused on Medellín, the nation’s capital also faces challenges to improve its air quality.
A study released last year from Colombia’s Universidad La Salle found that air pollution cost Bogotá nearly $1 billion USD in 2014 in the form of premature deaths, heart disease, cancer, respiratory illness, and other complications.
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