A study conducted in Ghana and seven other African countries has revealed that the sulphur content of diesel products imported into the relevant countries are 150 times and, in some cases 1,000 times, more than the limits allowed in Europe.
The three-year study conducted by Public Eye, a Swiss environmental non-governmental organisation, detected health-damaging substances, including polyaromatics (diesel) or benzene (gasoline), in concentrations that would never be allowed in fuels in Europe or the United States (US).
More than two-thirds of the diesel samples (17 out of 25) had a sulphur level higher than 1,500 parts per million (ppm), which is 150 times the European limit of 10 ppm. Ghana’s sulphur content standard is pegged at 3,000 ppm, but the research found Ghana’s diesels products imported by Trafigura and Vitol to contain between 2,410 and 2,730 ppm, which is lower than the acceptable Ghana Standards Authority (GSA) limits but much higher than the 10 ppm European standard.
“In a number of samples, we found traces of metals that also contribute to higher emissions of pollutants and damage car engines,” Mr Gian-Valentino Viredaz, a commodities researcher with the NGO, told journalists at a press conference in Accra yesterday.
According to the report titled: “Dirty Diesel,” differences between national fuel quality regulations offered the opportunity for companies to profit from a form of regulatory arbitrage.
While the practice of blending fuel for profit is an acceptable industry practice, it is within the law of the countries where the products are exported to, that it is the result of “regulatory arbitrage” that allows traders and fuel companies to dump cheap, dirty fuels at the expense of the health of the consuming public in Africa.
United Nations trade statistics show that the Amsterdam–Rotterdam–Antwerp oil route accounted for around 50 per cent of the declared volume of petroleum products delivered to West Africa in 2014.
The National Petroleum Authority data indicate that Ghana as of June this year, imported 1,881,350,944 metric tonnes of diesel worth more than US$1.1 billion.
Blending for profit?
According to the report, Swiss commodity traders, Trafigura and Vitol, are among a number of companies accused of exporting what environmentalists call “African quality” diesel, blending products in European facilities to create fuels with sulphur levels that are sometimes hundreds of times over European limits.
“The goal for the companies is to be as close as possible to the legal limit in order to maximise the profits,” Mr Viredaz observed.
According to experts, when the fuel is burned, the sulphur is released into the atmosphere as sulphur dioxide and other compounds that are major contributors to respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma.
According to experts, the harm done by high-sulphur fuels is hard to measure, particularly in parts of the continent where statistics is poor, but death from air pollution is real.
A report published by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) last week found that air pollution is the third-biggest cause of death in poor and lower-middle income countries.
It estimated that it killed more than 17,500 people in Ghana alone in 2013, costing more than $542 million in lost labour income, an estimate that doesn’t even include the cost of treating pollution-related disease.
However, Mr Viredaz asserted that the situation could be turned around if policy makers decided to insist on high quality equivalent or close to what was on the European market.
He cited the example of five countries of the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda) which insisted on a new low-sulphur content specification of 50 ppm for diesel since January 2015.
“This move, which dramatically lowered per million emissions, has absolutely no impact on prices,” he explained.
He also rallied Ghana and other African countries to take decisive steps, including employing stringent fuel standard, as well as regulate the export of blend-stock fuels.
While urging the Swiss trading companies to stop producing and selling quality health damaging fuels, he also urged the Swiss government to implement a mandatory human rights due diligence to deal with situation.
The Executive Director of the Africa Centre for Energy Policy (ACEP), Dr Mohammed Amin Adam, who launched the report, said the call for transparency which had largely been scrutinising crude to ensure value for money for the country had been at the expense of quality of petroleum products.
“We must push for transparency not just at one side of the value chain but across the value chain. In the upstream sector, we are concerned about quality to determine prices, in the downstream sector, we must be concerned about quality to determine the impact on our health, the environment and our cars,” he said.
Importers not guilty
Reacting to the report, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ghana Chamber of Bulk Oil Distributors, Mr Senyo Hosi, however, insisted that the oil importing companies could not be blamed for the quality of diesel on the local market since they met local regulatory requirement.
He, however, said industry players in the West Africa sub-region were in discussions to ensure that the sulphur levels of diesel on the market were reduced to 500 ppm.
He also explained that fuel blending was not illegal but an acceptable industry practice globally and that the impression should not be created as if it was an unlawful act.
While commending Public Eye for its work, Mr Hosi maintained that much of the decision to improve the quality of petroleum products was for policy makers to make.
Return to Sender campaign
Meanwhile, Public Eye, in collaboration with ACEP, is symbolically shipping thousands of empty diesel gallons to Switzerland as part of a campaign christened “Return to Sender” to show the continent’s disgust for air pollution as a result of the dirty oil.