WERE WE LIED TO, AND IF SO, BY WHO?
Sifting through some old magazines recently, I came across the February/ March 1987 issue of the Automobile Association’s (AA) Motor World, and noted its front-page article entitled “Unleaded Petrol … Just for the birds? But at what cost to the motorist?” I must have acquired this magazine post 1987, as, on reading it, I discovered that it contained some information that would have been very useful for my subsequent Price On unleaded articles that I began writing for this magazine in the mid-to-late 1990s.
I can recall taking the AA to task back then about why it didn’t (seem) to be taking up the cudgels on behalf of the hapless motorists. Quickly recapping for those readers who have only ever known unleaded and its variations: we were thrust into the fiasco in 1995 when unleaded petrol was introduced with dramatic consequences — such as fires and mechanical problems — which were attributed to the quality of the petrol, or rather, the lack of quality.
At the time of the introduction of unleaded petrol into New Zealand, Trish Duffy was New Zealand Classic Car magazine’s writer of choice, and the then-editor Greg Vincent asked me to step up to the plate and take over, as Trish had been in receipt of threats and the like. Not just loving confrontation, but thriving on it, I happily stepped up, armed with much of the research that Trish had conducted — but missing this spiel from the 1987 AA magazine. Unfortunately, when the proverbial hit the fan, both Trish and I were out of the country (I was in the US), and Greg Vincent was left to front the media. Pretty much like today’s politics, we saw the then–prime minister Jim Bolger tell us via TV news that, “If the petrol is unsatisfactory then the oil companies will be made to withdraw it!”
Yeah, right! Like that ever happened! Five minutes later, we were assured that it was OK and that the fires and mechanical problems were unrelated to the petrol! Which would explain why there were confidential settlements everywhere. Unfortunately, the statistics produced by the Fire Service didn’t support the idea that petrol was the cause of the fires for some reason.
However, the problem with the petrol at the time was the result of excessive amounts of toluene (54 per cent) being added to increase the octane level. Toluene is highly destructive to older rubber parts, causing the rubber to swell significantly with resultant leaking of fuel. Combined that with hot engine parts, and, nek minnit, your pride and joy is ablaze. Tetraethyl lead (the ‘ lead’ in leaded petrol) was also necessary for preventing ‘ knocking’, or ‘pinking’, in the older (and also high-compression) engines, and, when this was removed, many engines failed. One might have thought that someone would have seen this coming.
Well, the AA did back in 1987. Unleaded petrol was set to be introduced into New Zealand in January of 1988. The AA maintained that only between 20 and 30 per cent of the vehicle fleet would be able to run on unleaded. This figure is close to what I was quoting in the mid-to-late 1990s; rather, I was claiming that some 80 per cent would require leaded petrol. One of the myths being promoted prior to its introduction was that the ‘ lead’ was harmful to children. Other health concerns were alluded to — mainly from overseas sources.
In 1986, the Marsden Point refinery lowered the ‘ lead’ content from 0.84 grams per litre ( gl) to 0.45gl, with a further drop to 0.15gl planned by 1990. I’d have to say that, having the same car as back then, I didn’t really notice any difference — but then I’ve been a bit naughty and absentmindedly putting some of my racing fuel in it!
While New Zealand politicians were extolling the benefits of unleaded to us (which were being fed to them by oilindustry lobbyists), the AA (in 1987) meanwhile was telling us that according to the then Ministry of Energy, “Removing lead from all petrol would be extremely impractical because three-quarters of our cars need lead. The increased octane level from lead makes them run better and they need the lubrication lead provides for the valves.”
Once the damage stories started to surface post unleaded’s introduction in 1995, the spin doctors (read: communications managers) emerged on behalf of the oil industry, and the standout spin doctor for BP, one Beppie Holm, quickly became the spokeswoman for all the oil companies — and she was very good at what she did. One radio station contacted me in advance of one of her appearances, wanting me to phone in and take her to task. This was, for all intents and purposes, an ambush, but despite the advantage that I had of knowing most of the arguments, Beppie stuck to her script and was nigh on impossible to budge from her arguments — even for me! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but, in answer to the question, “Why can’t the industry simply supply three types of fuel?” Beppie Holm replied that it would require petrol stations to have three storage tanks and that would not be economical. But what do you see when you drive into a BP station these days? Three distinct pumps dispensing 91 octane,
Tetraethyl lead (the ‘lead’ in leaded petrol) was also necessary for preventing ‘knocking’, or ‘pinking’, in the older (and also high-compression) engines, and, when this was removed, many engines failed
95 octane, and 98 octane. Now, when I went to school I was taught that that would mean
three storage tanks.
One of the myths surrounding unleaded that continues to rankle me is the contention that lead in petrol is detrimental to health. Yes, lead is poisonous and so much so that all cases of lead poisoning must be reported to the Ministry of Health. Yet, up until the last time I checked, there have been no cases of lead poisoning attributed to the lead in petrol! All lead poisoning to date has been attributable to the inhalation of fumes from (wait for it!) leaded paint. And, with the rebuild of Christchurch post the earthquakes and the cowboys doing house renovations blowing old leaded paint particles into the air, I’m sure those figures will increase.
I would also argue that if the so-called lead in petrol was that deadly, then where are all the dead roadside-tethered goats? And, since the abolition of leaded petrol as we knew it, would you believe that the atmospheric levels of ‘ lead’ in the air have actually increased?
Back then, I had some very interesting and long chats with some international industry players. One oil executive told me that the main motive behind the industry wanting to get rid of leaded petrol was that the industry simply wanted to make just the one grade of petrol (91 octane). Another, who was associated with the industry that produced tetraethyl lead, wasn’t bothered because they would simply be making the octane booster.
And speaking of octane boosters, here we are in 2018, and the oil industry seemingly still cannot make a high-octane petrol without the use of tetraethyl lead! The jet-boat industry is still able to legally access avgas (racing fuel) for its high-powered boats, and, as long as we still have piston-engined planes and motor sport, leaded fuel will be required.
It’s now some 23 years on from the introduction of unleaded petrol and while ‘ lead-replacement’ additives are still available at petrol stations, and various ‘ leadreplacement’ gadgetry can be purchased online, and it’s obvious that the industry could have continued to provide three grades of petrol, one might ask why it was ever necessary to go down this path at all? I recall a prime minister in the late 1980s claiming that when leaded petrol was eventually introduced, only 22 per cent of the fleet would require it. I remember asking at the time, where would the other 78 per cent of vehicles that still required it disappear to? Interestingly, they haven’t. So, why is that? Perhaps some of them haven’t covered the 10,000–15,000 miles estimated to exhaust the remnants of lead in the engines?
Whatever! I still reckon it was all a big con. Just saying!