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More Bioheat is Good for the City

- 3:09 pm - April 15th, 2016

As originally published in Crain's:

In New York City, 1.4 million households use heating oil. A decade ago, some would have considered that a bad thing—a relic of the past that needed to change for the betterment of the environment. However, thanks to an alliance of interests including the local heating-oil industry, the environmental community and public health advocates, today New York’s brand of home-heating oil is among the cleanest major heating fuels in the United States. The conversation is now about how to make heating oil even cleaner and more renewable—not how to replace it.

The path to what is now known as “clean heat” (ultra-low-sulfur heating oil blended with biodiesel) has been difficult. Big Oil has fought each and every attempt to make our fuel cleaner and more renewable in New York.

In 2010, the retail and wholesale heating-oil industry led a broad alliance of advocates to fight Big Oil and other well-funded interests to pass historic state legislation requiring all No. 2 home-heating oil to dramatically reduce its sulfur content to practically zero (15 parts per million, or ultra-low sulfur). This has had a hugely positive impact on air quality in a city where asthma rates are among the nation’s highest.

In 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg passed a rule that phased out the heaviest heating oil—No. 6—which last year was eradicated in New York City. Around that time, Bloomberg also signed legislation that improved the fuel even further, requiring that the commercial No. 4 oil blend have significantly reduced sulfur content and ultimately be phased out, and for all heating oil to contain at least 2% biodiesel, known as B2.

As a result of that legislation, since 2012, New York City has replaced more than 80 million gallons of fossil fuel petroleum with renewable biodiesel that is made from recycled restaurant grease and sustainable agricultural feedstocks such as soy beans (considered an advanced biofuel by the Environmental Protection Agency and proven to reduce greenhouse gases by 85% compared with petroleum).

Now, leading environmental advocates like the New York League of Conservation Voters are aggressively supporting a popular bill—Intro. 642—that would increase New York’s biodiesel blend from 2% to 5% (B5) and scale it up to 20% (B20) over the course of the next two decades. As early as next heating season, we would displace 56 million gallons of petroleum annually—more than two and half times what we displace with renewable biodiesel today. And when we move to B20 we will be eliminating 241 million gallons of petroleum annually—and that’s just in residential buildings.

It is no wonder that this makes Big Oil very nervous, causing it to lobby furiously against another local effort to reduce their market-share and disrupt their operations. If we listened to Big Oil in 2010 we would have the same high-sulfur, 100% fossil-fuel product that our grandparents were using. More children would be suffering from asthma and other lung diseases and it would likely have been a more expensive fuel for New Yorkers.

The fact is Bioheat® (the trade term for biodiesel-blended heating oil) is more affordable than traditional heating oil. New York City’s brand of ultra low sulfur, biodiesel-blended heating oil has been on average 21 cents less expensive per gallon than traditional home-heating oil over the last 49 months. Bioheat® is much cleaner and less carbon-intensive than traditional heating oil.

According to Brookhaven National Labs, B20 is cleaner than natural gas, which is of course a fossil fuel that requires major pipeline investment and infrastructure. And the B2 that New Yorkers have been using for the last four heating seasons has worked incredibly well in both new and older heating systems, paving the way for sensible increases in blends over time.

This legislation is a major win for New Yorkers. Bioheat® improves air quality, reduces our dependence on fossil fuel, reduces our carbon footprint and creates local jobs. It is not the only solution to our energy problems; we need an energy balance of renewable energy sources including biofuels, wind, solar and geothermal. But goals such as reducing carbon output by 80% by 2050—a signature environmental goal of Mayor Bill de Blasio—are difficult if not impossible to achieve without increasing the renewable blends in our heating oil right away.