Supervisor polders about export of dirty fuel, patience has run out at Greenpeace

You probably don’t think about it when you fill up with petrol or diesel. But what you throw in your tank here in the Netherlands is not the same as what they throw in their tank in Africa.

Because while fuels in Europe have become increasingly cleaner over the past 50 years, in order to combat air pollution, this happened less or not yet in Africa.

Air pollution

In Europe, the amounts of benzene and sulfur were reduced, among other things, and lead disappeared completely. These substances cause a lot of air pollution and air pollution causes respiratory diseases.

So in Africa, the standards are more relaxed. As a result, fuels in African countries contain 5 to sometimes 500 times as much sulfur as in the Netherlands, according to United Nations figures. And also other chemicals that pollute the air and therefore cause health problems.

Dutch made

The funny thing is that these fuels are often made in the Netherlands. Oil companies and traders dilute European-grade petrol and diesel with chemicals to make more money.

“You mix it with cheap toxic waste, then how not to process it and that saves costs,” explains Faiza Oulahsen of Greenpeace. “And in addition, you have much more volume that you can sell in Africa.”

More than we fill up

For example, billions of liters of inferior fuel are shipped every year, sometimes more than we all fill up in the Netherlands. This must stop, according to the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) for some time now (see box at the bottom of this story).

“The fuels made for that market contain substances that are harmful to people and the environment,” says DaniĆ«lle Rebel, spokesperson for the regulator. “And what also happens is that those substances destroy catalytic converters and particulate filters in cars. And that in turn leads to extra emissions of harmful substances.”

Consultation takes time

The Inspectorate has not yet intervened, despite an ultimatum that expires at the end of this year. The ILT is in consultation with companies to see what the most effective way is ‘to improve the situation there’, according to Rebel. And that takes time, she admits. “It is really a complex matter with many parties involved in many countries.”

At Greenpeace, patience has run out. “The Dutch government should simply impose stricter rules, it’s that simple. You shouldn’t ask these oil companies,” says Oulahsen. “They also earn from it, so they don’t just voluntarily agree to that.”

She thinks the companies are deliberately delaying it. “To be able to continue what they are doing for as long as possible.” She compares it to smoking. “We have all kinds of rules so that people smoke less and pay more for it. Those are also rules that we have not done in coordination with the tobacco industry.”

The process is underway

For the time being, the ILT is still sticking to the chosen path of consultation with the sector in the hope that it will take responsibility itself. “We will meet again at the beginning of next year and we will see what steps need to be taken,” said Rebel. “The trial is underway.”

Five years of dirty dieseling

In 2016, the Swiss NGO Public Eye published the Dirty Diesel report. It described how highly polluted fuels found their way from Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam to West Africa in particular.

In response to that report, 15 countries united in ECOWAS tightened fuel standards. But that has not yet been transposed into law in all those countries.

Duty of care manufacturers

In 2018, the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate published a study that confirmed Public Eye’s findings. Because the fuels are often made in the Netherlands, the ILT addressed the manufacturers with regard to their duty of care. They should not be allowed to sell the fuels with high amounts of sulfur and benzene – not even outside Europe – because they know that they lead to health problems.

Research agency TNO listed the harmful effects of the fuels in the summer of this year. The ILT then issued an ultimatum to the producers. Today it becomes clear that the regulator is not yet taking enforcement action.

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