DETROIT - It is not the total answer, but it is a step in the right direction.
That was the response from automobile manufacturers and clean-air advocates after BP Amoco PLC said it will offer a gasoline with significantly reduced sulfur content.
Sir John Browne, BP Amoco's CEO, said last week that his company will offer gasoline with 50 parts per million of sulfur in 40 markets worldwide. The gasoline will be available within two years.
BP Amoco, formed Jan. 1 after British Petroleum acquired Amoco Corp., controls 14 percent of the U.S. retail gasoline market. The company will spend $100 million outfitting its American refineries for low-sulfur gasoline production.
Sulfur occurs naturally in crude oil and traces of the element remain in refined gasoline. When sulfur is burned in internal combustion engines, it bonds with precious metals inside catalytic converters, limiting the converter's ability to remove pollutants.
NOT A HUGE LEAP
Producing the new fuel will not require huge investments of money or new technology, Browne said.
'Many modern refineries can already produce limited quantities of fuels that meet even the toughest specifications required for advanced vehicle technology,' he said.
Conventional gasolines today have an average sulfur content of 350 parts per million. Amoco Ultimate, its top- of-the-line gas, has a sulfur content of around 200 parts per million.
People within the automobile industry had a generally positive response to Browne's announcement.
'Any step toward lowering sulfur is a step in the right direction,' said Loren Beard, senior manager for fuels technology at DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich. '(But) we need a standard of 30 ppm, because sulfur is a poison for our catalysts and the poisoning is not reversible.'
Regulations on sulfur content vary widely, with California having the strictest rules in the world. Since 1996, gasoline sold in that state must have an average sulfur content of 30 parts per million, with a maximum content of 80 parts per million.
Browne's plan departs from proposals floated by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade and lobbying group for oil refiners.
The institute proposes that fuel with a 150 parts per million sulfur content be made available by 2004, or whenever the federal EPA requires it, in states east of the Mississippi River along with Louisiana, Missouri and east Texas.
National standards are not necessary, the institute said, nor are limits as restrictive as what Browne proposes. The institute opposes national standards as too costly.
Makers have been vocal in their support of national low-sulfur standards, lobbying the Clinton administration to adopt such limits. The EPA is expected to issue proposals for emission standards that will take effect in 2004, including low-sulfur gasoline, this spring.
Philip Hutchinson, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, applauded Browne's announcement.
But, he added, the announcement represents only the first step in the process of cleaner fuels, and 'you only achieve the promise of the new (low-emissions) technology with a low- or no-sulfur fuel.'