Habitat: Cleaning Out Air — and Wallet? Governor Signs Bill Reducing Heating-Oil Sulfur

(July 23, 2010)

By Frank Lovece

July 23, 2010 — Co-op and condo boards and residents can get ready to breathe easier — and to possibly pay through the nose. New York State Governor David Paterson on Tuesday followed a path blazed by Maine and Connecticut as he signed into law legislation mandating low-sulfur heating oil.

Beginning July 2012, the sulfur content of No. 2 heating oil will be limited to no more than 15 parts per million, down from the approximately 2,000 to 15,000 parts per million typical today. Achieving this will require oil companies to refine No. 2 oil more so than now. Whether this will result in higher costs for consumers depends on a plethora of factors, including the supply of oil generally as well as economies of scale as refineries ramp up to produce low-sulfur oil for, now, three Northeast states.


"Reducing the levels of sulfur in heating fuel oil will improve the health of New Yorkers and our environment, and will help consumers cut their energy bills through reduced fuel use and lower maintenance costs," the governor said in a statement. Sulfur and other air pollutants have been blamed for high incidences of asthma and cancer.

The legislation was supported by a range of groups including the New York Oil Heating Association, whose CEO said he was "highly confident that ultra low sulfur heating oil will remain affordable," and the New York chapter of the American Lung Association, whose president, Scott T. Santarella, said that with more than 12 million New Yorkers living in counties with failing air quality, the new law will "give New Yorkers cleaner, healthier air that doesn't make them sick." Many environmental groups also pushed for the new standard.

Among the opposition was the Business Council of New York State, which stated that the measure "will increase prices on oil providers who will be forced to make major capital investments to meet the requirements of this bill. These costs will ultimately get passed on to consumers."

Some co-op and condo buildings will likely shift to high-efficiency boilers that require No. 2 fuel — a transition that would be spurred should New York City succeed in is announced to phase out use of high-sulfur and high-particulate Nos. 4 and 6 heating oil.

The bills were A8642A (Titled "Requires a reduction in sulfur emissions for all heating oil used in the state"), sponsored by Assemblyman Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), and S1145C (Titled "Requires a reduction in sulfur emissions for all heating oil used in non-attainment areas"), sponsored by State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem).

Heating oil is essentially diesel fuel but with much higher sulfur content than the 15ppm in fuel used for vehicles. Sulfur dioxide, as particulate matter in the air, causes regional haze and contributes to the formation of acid rain.

The American Lung Association says the new No. 2 heating-oil standard will also "dramatically reduce" nitrogen oxides – key ingredients of smog – by as much as 30 percent.

In a technical quirk that Paterson urged legislators to correct, the low-sulfur oil would be subject to the same 40-cents per gallon tax applied to vehicle diesel fuel. "It is critical . . . [to] ensure the tax exempt status of heating fuel oil is maintained," he said.

The new law mandating low-sulfur heating oil "is great news for anybody who breathes New York air during heating season," said Rich Kassel, Senior Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The plume of black smoke that now comes from many of New York's buildings is on its way to becoming a thing of the past."