Suggested changes to petrol could cause serious damage to cars, have health risks

Proposed changes to petroleum regulations means South Africans won’t have a metal-free fuel, resulting in damage to vehicles and more pollutents being pumped into the atmosphere.

For the past 10 years, drivers have filled their cars with unleaded petrol. The need for it is clear: lead-containing petrol causes permanent damage to catalytic converters, which are designed to reduce exhaust emissions that cause health problems as a result of higher levels of lead in human blood.

Leaded petrol has been phased out worldwide; in countries such as the United States its sale was banned in 1996.

The beneficiaries of changes to petroleum regulations will be the global chemicals magnate, Afton, and powerful local manganese interests and mine owners.

The draft amendments, issued in June, to the Petroleum Products Specification and Standards regulations propose to change the current definition of unleaded petrol mean “all petrol that does not include metal additives, but including or excluding manganese …”

An industry expert, who asked not to be named, said: “Manganese is just as much a metal as any other metal. This means that there will no longer be a pure metal-free petrol grade. Both lead-replacement petrol and the new unleaded petrol will be metal-containing fuels.”

The implications of this could be far-reaching. The number of South African vehicle owners using unleaded petrol has risen steeply since 2006, when lead-free petrol became available. Vehicle manufacturers geared up to meet the new standards, importing and producing modern vehicles with catalytic converters.

Today’s modern vehicles meeting the Euro 5 standard have even more sophisticated catalytic converters with a finer mesh. These will become clogged and unusable more quickly, said Stuart Rayner, the chairperson of the fuels and emissions working group of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa).

“In South Africa, such vehicles are now in widespread use. Reintroduction of manganese-based additives will be a major issue for the tens of thousands of such vehicles in the market.”

Any costs related to damage caused by this would probably not be covered by the dealers or manufacturers, said Rayner. “If the problem happens while the vehicle is still under warranty, you would expect the dealer to replace it, but you would probably find the dealer wouldn’t, because they would think you had been using an unfit petrol type.”

So the costs will come out of the consumers’ pockets.

“The catalytic converter is an expensive item; it carries precious metals and so forth,” said Rayner. “You would certainly be looking at a repair price of about R10 000.”

In older vehicles, the problem would only start to show after about 100 000km. “Here, the people who will be most affected will be the second-, third- and fourth-hand car owners, who can’t afford to fix it,” said the industry expert. “They will buy the car thinking it’s okay but there’s an inherent problem in the vehicle.”

Rayner said the owners of older cars are likely to “take the car to a backyard mechanic, who would simply break apart the catalytic converter honeycomb to get the car running. The converter would stop working [increasing emissions], and that’s the sad thing about it,” he said.

“When you do your roadworthy test, there’s no emissions test, so no one will catch you out for not having a catalytic converter.”

The Worldwide Fuel Charter states clearly that manganese increases carbon emissions by adversely affecting the operation of vehicle emissions control systems. Several studies reviewed by the Co-ordinating Research Council in the US in September last year found that vehicles using petrol-containing manganese “have substantially higher emissions and higher rates of failure”.

Besides the cost of unforeseen repair bills, and the amount of pollutants pumped into the atmosphere will increase drastically.

“In my view, it’s quite shocking,” said a lobbyist who has submitted a comment to the department of energy opposing the changes. “If you look at the Bill of Rights, it says that ‘everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being … through reasonable legislative measures that prevent pollution.’ They are not living up to that.”

In bid to better meet global environmental standards, the new draft also proposes that the levels of sulphur in petrol be reduced.

This exposes a strange contradiction in the department’s moves, the lobbyist says.

Another commentator says: “The reduction in sulphur will involve all the refineries upgrading. The primary benefit will be to allow more fuel-efficient cars from overseas on to the market. So the sulphur level goes down at great expense to the country to allow for new technology, and then the re-introduction of manganese will mean that these new cars can’t be used anyway. It’s absolutely bizarre. There’s obviously something highly irregular going on.”

The department declined to answer specific questions about why the changes have been recommended. Its spokesperson, Thandiwe Maimane, said: “The draft amendment regulations regarding Petroleum Products and Standards was published for public comment as per Gazette R684 for a two-month period ending on August 3.

“The next step will be for the department to hold a stakeholder consultation workshop at which the draft amendments will be discussed in their full detail by all interested stakeholders.

“The envisaged workshop will be held shortly and the date will be announced accordingly.”

The role of manganese in petrol and consumers’ rights
Manganese is traditionally used in the production of MMT, a petrol additive that is used to enhance octane.

Naamsa explains it this way: “Petrol needs a certain octane level to prevent the engine from ‘pinging’ or ‘knocking’, which can damage a car’s engine. The octane rating of a fuel is a measure of its resistance to knock — the higher the rating, the less will be the tendency of a fuel to cause knock [Most drivers of petrol vehicles choose between an octane level of 93 or 95]. Adding lead compounds to petrol was the most cost-effective way of boosting its octane rating.”

South Africa is the leading producer of manganese. The Kalahari manganese field in the Northern Cape contains about 80% of the world’s high-grade manganese ore reserves. It is mined mainly by two companies: Assmang, which is half-owned by Patrice Motsepe-controlled African Rainbows Minerals, and Samancor, which was previously owned by BHP Billiton and Anglo American but is now majority owned by Terris Chrome, with a minority black economic empowerment shareholding.

Afton, which is based in the US, is the largest supplier of MMT to the South African market. It has conducted several studies, with the results reportedly disputing the negative effects of the substance. In a 2001 study of Honda Civics, Afton found that “there was no [significant] evidence to substantiate concerns that the use of MMT causes emissions failures”.

Another telephonic survey compared the repair rates of catalytic converters in a region where MMT was used against an area where it was not. Afton reported that the repairs were primarily due to recall or warranty issues, and concluded that there was “no statistically significant difference between markets”.

But MMT has been banned in North America, Europe, Asia and Australasia. Very few countries allow the use of the substance in any substantial quantity.

Several oil refineries in South Africa are reportedly committed not to produce unleaded petrol containing MMT, but an industry expert says older refineries might be tempted. “If you’re short of the octane requirement for 93 or 95 petrol, you can add MMT and meet the requirement,” he said. “Especially if it’s not against the law – why not? It’s the cheapest way of doing things.”

According to the industry expert: “The issue is that the consumer’s choices are being limited by not being allowed a truly metal-free petrol.

“If they want to add to consumers’ options by making a third grade of petrol that contains manganese, then they can go ahead.”

Naamsa agrees. “Vehicle manufacturers regard this as a step backwards in terms of fuel quality,” said Rayner.

Lobbyists argue that, should the proposals go ahead, the consumer should be warned.

“Vehicle manufacturers would and could not offer financial or other support to such affected vehicle owners,” said Rayner. “Should oil companies actually start adding manganese to unleaded petrol, vehicle manufacturers would need to warn the motoring public.”

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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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