March 4, 2010

Bill seeks to cut sulfur content in heating oil

By John Richardson
Staff Writer

A state lawmaker has proposed legislation to help clear Maine's air by reducing the amount of sulfur in home heating oil sold in the state.

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, announced details of his bill Tuesday at Acadia National Park, where haze from sulfur particles and other pollution periodically spoils the world-famous views of the Maine coast.

''Scenic vistas are one of the primary reasons people come visit gems like Acadia,'' he said.

Besides threatening the allure of tourist destinations, sulfur pollution contributes to respiratory illnesses, said Goodall, a co-chair of the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee.

The bill to clean up heating oil is one of two proposals that will go before the Legislature next month. A proposal by Rep. Steve Butterfield, D-Bangor, would require the use of biofuel, as well as limiting sulfur content.

Goodall's bill, which also would restrict the sulfur content of fuel oil for commercial and industrial boilers, was drafted with the support of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

''We'll have a reduction of close to 30 percent in sulfur emissions by the end of this next decade,'' said Jim Brooks, director of the DEP's Air Quality Bureau. ''The air will get a lot cleaner. It will be easier to breathe and you should be able to see much better over longer distances, even on the bad days.''

The legislation would not fix the problem entirely, in part because sulfur pollution and haze also blow into the state from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. But, Brooks said, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring similar pollution cuts around the country.

Goodall's bill would require refineries that send oil to Maine to gradually reduce the sulfur content of heating oil and boiler fuel. Heating oil now has 2,000 or more parts of sulfur per million. The new law would set a limit of 500 parts per million by 2014 and 15 parts per million by 2018.

Maine is one of 15 northeastern states that have agreed to set the new standards as part of a regional effort to reduce haze, and it's one of the first to consider new laws or rules to enforce the plan.

The DEP estimates the added cost for low-sulfur fuel would be 5 to 10 cents per gallon. Goodall and other supporters said consumers shouldn't expect an overall cost increase because the cleaner fuel would be more efficient -- so a tank of oil would last longer -- and furnaces would need less frequent cleanings and maintenance.

The companies that sell and deliver heating oil to Maine customers support getting the sulfur out, said Jamie Py, executive director of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, formerly the Maine Oil Dealers Association. The trade group is even supporting a second bill that would push the final deadline to as soon as 2011.

''We certainly don't want customers to pay a higher price,'' Py said. But most refineries would be able to supply the cleaner oil at about the same price because they already are making low-sulfur diesel fuel for motor vehicles and wouldn't need to make large investments in new equipment.

As long as prices and supplies stayed stable, customers would like the low-sulfur oil, he said.

''It burns more efficiently in existing heating systems and it deposits less black carbon on the inside of the heating systems,'' he said. Also, Mainers could upgrade to the next generation of clean and efficient oil furnaces, which don't burn high-sulfur oil.

The bill submitted by Rep. Butterfield would require all heating oil to contain at least 2 percent biofuel and no more than 15 parts per million of sulfur by 2011. It would allow an extension if tight supplies forced prices too high.


Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:


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