Most Oil Heaters Will Get Cleaner, But Dirtiest Won't

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Buildings in most of New York state and the city burn number two home heating fuel, which a new state law is going to sharply restrict.

Buildings in most of New York state and the city burn number two home heating fuel, which a new state law is going to sharply restrict.

Photo by: Versageek

Gov. Paterson is expected to sign a law that will reduce the sulfur content in oil used to heat most homes. But other, dirtier heating fuels are exempted from the measure.

By: Chris Giblin

Last week, the state Assembly passed a bill that would reduce sulfur emissions in home heating oil. The bill, which the State Senate passed on June 17th and which Gov. Paterson is expected to sign into law shortly, was backed by an unusual alliance of businesses and environmentalists. Also unusual: Some of its opponents argued not that it went too far, but that it didn't go far enough.

Under current New York State law, sulfur emissions can number up to 15,000 parts per million for number two heating oil, the oil used in the vast majority of homes and buildings statewide. Nearly 42,000 tons of sulfur dioxide are emitted each year in New York state under current heating oil emissions regulations, the American Lung Association (ALA) in New York reports. The new law would eliminate 99.4 percent of the sulfur generated by number two heating oil, restricting home heating oil sulfur emissions to no more than 15 parts per million by July 1st, 2012

Though a study has not yet been conducted to quantify the potential health benefits this sulfur reduction would have, ALA research suggests there should be some. “The exhaust particles that form from the use of this fuel are known to exacerbate allergies, trigger asthma attacks, decrease lung function, cause heart attacks and shorten life expectancy,” according to the ALA.

Some state lawmakers, such as State Senator James L. Seward, who represents Oneonta and several surrounding rural counties, opposed the bill on the grounds that it could cost some families hundreds of dollars in heating costs.

But most home heating oil suppliers believe consumers will pay similar prices for their heating oil in coming years, possibly even saving money after the industry makes the change, according to John Maniscalco, CEO of the New York Oil Heating Association.

“When you change product, there's always going to be a blip in the price at the beginning until everybody gets refiners up to capacity,” he said. “However, we feel very strongly that it's going to balance off. And we know for a fact that using the cleaner oil actually makes the burners run more efficiently.”

“[The companies] believe that there is enough supply so that we're not going to see a raise in price,” said Michael Seilback, vice president of public policy and communications for the ALA.

Seilback added that most local oil distribution companies supported the bill alongside public health and environmental groups.

“The ironic thing is that the people that are most pushing the argument [that ultra-low-sulfur oil will cost more] are the big oil companies,” he said. “BP was lobbying against this bill along with other companies that are making record-breaking profits.”

Other lawmakers opposed the bill on the grounds that New York City was “exempted” from the bill, since the bill only covers number two heating oil. Upstate customers almost exclusively use this heating oil, and it s also the kind most commonly used in the city. However, nearly 9,000 large residential, commercial and institutional New York City buildings use home heating oil number four or six for their heat. Also known as “residual oils,” they are far dirtier than number two heating oil but will remain legal even after this legislation. These buildings represent just 1 percent of the city's buildings, but they contribute 86 percent of the city's heating oil soot pollution, according to a study released by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Urban Green Council in December 2009.

“[The bill] seemed to be exempting the city, so it simply wasn't comprehensive enough,” said Robert Nickol, legislative aide to Senator William J. Larkin, whose district includes parts of Orange, Ulster and Sullivan Counties.

Jason Schwartz, legal fellow at the Institute for Policy Integrity, a nonpartisan research organization at the New York University School of Law, published a report last month that found that up to 259 lives could be saved every year in New York City if it disallowed the use of residual oils for heating. He said that the current bill was a great accomplishment on the state level, but more action needs to be seen here in the city to clean the air.

“This bill is doing a lot,” he said. “But it's focused on number two heating oil, so we still need action at the city level to transition New York City customers from the dirtiest heating oil to cleaner types.”

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