Delays hit rules on VOC emissions from petrol distribution

A final agreement on an EC Directive which will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the petrol distribution chain seems certain to be delayed until at least the autumn. The text was agreed by Environment Ministers last summer, but the European Parliament is holding out for changes which look set to force it into a new conciliation procedure established under the Maastricht Treaty.

The so-called "Stage I" Directive will require the introduction of controls to limit VOC emissions from petrol storage terminals and distribution operations, including unloading at service stations. The controls are to be phased in over a ten-year period after the Directive is adopted, with smaller facilities being given longest to comply (ENDS Report 220, p 31 ).

The text was agreed by Environment Ministers last June, and a formal "common position" adopted in October. The next step was a second reading in the European Parliament - and in March Parliament voted through several amendments which will further delay the Directive's final adoption.

The key changes demanded by Parliament are:

  • The text agreed by Ministers provides that ships should be excluded from the Directive's scope until rules on VOC abatement systems for ships, enabling emissions during loading and unloading operations to be reduced, have been agreed by the International Maritime Organization. However, Parliament is insisting that the EC should take unilateral action if IMO rules have not been adopted by the end of 1996.

  • The common position exempts rail tankers from a requirement that mobile containers should be able to retain vapours returned during petrol unloading operations, on the grounds that this would involve costs disproportionate to the environmental benefits. However, Parliament wants the exemption deleted.

  • Parliament also wants to delete a derogation granted at the insistence of the UK and Eire. In both countries, the only legal means of measuring petrol levels in road tankers is by dipsticks, and the derogation provides that any VOC emissions from this process can be disregarded for existing tankers, with new tankers having to comply four years after the Directive enters into force.

    Under the revised legislative procedures laid down by the Maastricht Treaty, Ministers will now have to accept or reject as a package these and other amendments sought by Parliament. They are likely to consider them in June and if, as expected, the amendments are rejected, the proposal will go into a new conciliation procedure established by the Treaty. This provides for disagreements to be thrashed out by the Parliament and Council in direct negotiations. A conciliation committee is unlikely to meet until September at the earliest.

    Meanwhile, delays are also continuing to dog the so-called Stage II legislation. This will deal with VOC emissions during vehicle fuelling.

    A discussion paper on Stage II drafted by the European Commission almost two years ago proposed the phasing in of vapour recovery equipment at petrol stations, coupled with the introduction of standardised filler nozzles and vehicle fuel tank necks to minimise VOC leaks, over a period of 3-10 years (ENDS Report 216, pp 37-38 ).

    The proposal has provoked a heated dispute between the oil and car manufacturing industries in the EC, as it has done for many years in the USA. The oil industry maintains that vapours emitted during vehicle fuelling can be captured far more cost-effectively by installaing large carbon canisters on cars, at a cost of no more than about £50. Its view has recently prevailed in the USA, and the industry's lobbying of the European Commission appears to have caused the delay in the publication of a formal Stage II proposal.

    The Commission is understood to have promised - not for the first time - that the proposal will be issued within weeks. Germany, which takes over the EC Presidency in July, is likely to make the legislation one of its priorities.

    The delays to both Directives are likely to be causing some official concern in the UK, which is committed to reducing its VOC emissions by 30% between 1988 and 1999 under a pan-European protocol. In a VOC strategy paper issued last autumn, the Government acknowledged that the UK is only just likely to meet the target, and that "any major delays could put the target reduction at risk" (ENDS Report 226, p 35 ).

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