Most of the diesel fuel being produced nationwide is now a low-sulfur variety that will sharply cut pollution by trucks and buses - a change that federal officials are calling the biggest clean-fuel advance since unleaded gasoline.
EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said in a teleconference yesterday that ultra-low sulfur diesel now makes up about 90 percent of the output of U.S. refiners - exceeding the 80 percent standard the industry was required to meet by Sunday.
The rule, proposed by the Clinton administration and implemented by the Bush administration, is the culmination of an environmental "Dump Dirty Diesel" campaign that began in New York more than a decade ago with ads on transit buses.
Yesterday, Richard Kassel of the Natural Resources Defense Council recalled the message of that 1995 campaign: "Standing behind this bus could be more dangerous than standing in front of it."
Kassel, head of the environmental group's Clean Fuels and Vehicles Project, held a joint news conference with an industry representative yesterday to praise the progress that has been made since then.
"This is a big deal. This is a major health impact," Kassel said. He said the reduction in pollution could result in 8,300 fewer premature deaths each year.
"This is the single greatest achievement in clean fuel since lead was removed from gasoline 25 years ago," Johnson said. The EPA administrator said the lower-sulfur fuel is expected to cost 3 cents to 5 cents more per gallon.
The fuel is expected to yield an immediate 10 percent cut in soot emissions, even with older vehicles. Officials say greater reductions in emissions will come with the introduction of new diesel technology starting next year.
Beginning next year, engine manufacturers are required to move to a technology that, in combination with the new fuel, is expected to cut particulate emissions by 95 percent. The technology is also expected to cut diesel engines' nitrogen oxide emissions - a significant contributor to Chesapeake Bay pollution - by 25 percent to 50 percent.
Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, said the changes could bring a surge in popularity of diesel-powered cars and small trucks, which now account for 3.6 percent of the U.S. market.
Schaeffer, whose group includes diesel engine manufacturers, refiners and makers of emissions control technology, said an increase in diesel-powered cars could conserve fuel because such engines are 20 percent to 40 percent more fuel-efficient than those that run on gasoline.
The reformulated diesel fuel now flowing through the nation's distribution system contains a maximum of 15 parts per million of sulfur - 97 percent less than the previous standard of 500 parts per million.
Retailers are permitted to sell the older diesel until 2010, and some Maryland truck stop managers said yesterday that they have yet to begin selling ultra-low sulfur diesel, known as ULSD.
Hugh Curd, owner of the North Point Fuel Stop in Baltimore County, said his distributor has the fuel but that it costs 10 cents a gallon more than conventional diesel.
"It's available. It can be bought. Nobody's buying it yet," he said.
Pete Horrigan, president of the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, said refiners are likely to make a quick transition to exclusive production of the new formula.
"I don't think it's going to be too long before it's the primary fuel," he said. "Logistically, it's a lot easier to handle only one product."
Horrigan said the cost of the new fuel might be higher than the EPA projects. But he said fuel distributors are not fighting the change, which has been in the works since the late 1990s.
"My people are saying, `We're going to do what we have to do.' It's a good thing for the environment," he said.
Anne Ferro, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said members have concerns about the availability of the new fuel, but have not seen problems yet. She said the new generation of diesel engines could add $7,000 to $10,000 to the roughly $100,000 cost of a heavy truck.
Ferro said large trucking companies are unlikely to change their three-year replacement cycles. But she said the companies made heavy purchases of the less expensive 2006 models.