File picture: Chris Collingridge

Johannesburg - The emissions tax that was imposed on light vehicles a few years ago has been labelled as unfair, because of the unavailability of the quality fuel that would allow the motor industry to introduce environmentally friendly, lower emission vehicles.

Nico Vermeulen, the director of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa, said yesterday that South Africa’s fuel specifications were more than a decade behind the fuel standards that applied in Europe and the US.

Vermeulen said clean fuels were supposed to be introduced in the country in the middle of this year, but had now been delayed until after 2020. He stressed that clean fuels were important, because they enabled automotive companies to offer consumers and the market highly efficient, high technology, environmentally friendly products.

“To the extent that it’s not available, that is being undermined and limited, which is a great pity,” Vermeulen said in reaction to an address at the CAR Conference on local fuel trends.

“On top of that, the industry for some years now has been taxed, but the fuel that would enable the industry to rise to the challenge of environmentally friendly lower emission vehicles is not available. That appears to be unfair,” he said.

Vermeulen was also concerned about the lack of focus and debate on the harmful health and environmental effects of certain elements in South Africa’s fuel.

He said the country’s fuel allowed benzene, which was a serious carcinogenic and caused cancer, of up to 5 percent, while in Europe the maximum level was 1 percent.

South Africa’s fuel specifications also allowed sulphur in diesel of 500ppm, while in Europe it was 10ppm.

“Sulphur causes lung disease and related illnesses. We believe government has a responsibility to create an environment that contributes to human health and environmental well-being.

“Our fuel standards are inconsistent with those requirements,” he said.

Adrian Velaers, the senior technical adviser at Sasol, said South Africa proposed changing its fuel specifications and this issue was currently under debate. Many of the properties in fuel would be changed some time in the future to bring South African fuels in line with the needs of modern vehicles.

Velaers said the clean fuels one programme in 2006 was the first step to bring the country’s fuel specifications more in line with Europe and the needs of modern vehicles.

He said clean fuels two was on the cards and was the next “step change” South Africa needed to change its fuel quality.

“When that is going to happen is not clear at this stage. There is still some debate about what those specifications will look like, but there is consensus on the sulphur (content) that it will be 10ppm across the board for diesel and petrol,” he said.

Velaers said although South Africa was lagging the world, the country’s fuel specifications would ­eventually approach international trends.

However, he said it was complex technology and “it may be a slow costly process to get there”.

Velaers said each of the refineries would have to look at its business case and how much it cost to upgrade versus the profit they would make from that refinery.

“In some cases, it could well be more cost effective to shut the refinery down than to upgrade it. I think that is what the industry is grappling with at the moment,” he said.