International Joint Commission Asks the United States and Canada to Mandate Sulfur Content of Gasoline at Current California Standards

Contact Frank Bevacqua
Fabien Lengellé Washington, D.C.
Ottawa, Ontario (202) 736-9024
(613) 995-0088


International Joint Commission Asks the United States and Canada to
Mandate Sulfur Content of Gasoline at Current California Standards

To realize the benefits of new voluntary initiatives to reduce automobile pollution, the International Joint Commission (IJC) has officially asked the governments of the United States and Canada to adopt uniform nationwide standards of an annual average sulfur content in gasoline of 30 parts per million (ppm) and a maximum of 80 ppm, optimally by 2001, but certainly no later than 2005. The Commission is acting on the advice of its International Air Quality Advisory Board which is made up of U.S. and Canadian scientists and air pollution program administrators who consider transboundary air quality issues.

The automobile industry states that high levels of sulfur degrade the efficiency of catalytic converters and oxygen sensing technology, which are critical components in automobile emission control systems. A recent voluntary agreement between the United States federal government and automobile manufactures will allow earlier access by Americans to National Low Emissions Vehicles (NLEV) by the year 2001. Originally, NLEVs were to be introduced by regulation in 2004. Canadian manufacturers have also agreed to participate in a NLEV program on the same timeline. A substantial reduction of sulfur in gasoline is key to the implementation of these programs and to their success in achieving lower emissions, as current sulfur levels will impair the ability of automobile emission control systems to achieve targeted limits.

Average sulfur content in gasoline (outside of California) currently varies from 300 ppm to 350 ppm in the United States and Canada, with some exceptions such as Ontario which averages in the order of 550 ppm. Because of its severe air pollution, California has been the world leader in requiring cleaner fuels. Since 1996, California has legislated sulfur in gasoline be limited to either 40 ppm maximum or 30 ppm annual average with an 80 ppm maximum. Proven oil refining technology is available and in use to produce gasoline to this standard. The Commission is convinced that the associated production costs are more than balanced by improvements in air quality and benefits to human health.

The American Automobile Manufacturers Association has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for sulfur reductions as legislated in California, maintaining that current sulfur levels in the rest of the U.S. will degrade the efficiency of new emission control technology. Sulfur reduction is also vital for the development of the next generation of automobiles, such as some of those to be powered by fuel cells. In 1997, the Ozone Transport Assessment Group comprised of representatives from the eastern states recommended that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopt and implement a rule for an appropriate sulfur standard to further reduce emissions and assist vehicle technology and fuel systems to achieve maximum long term performance.

In Canada, a federal-provincial Government Working Group recently released a report for public comment that suggests three options regarding the future sulfur content in gasoline: reduce to 30 ppm annual average and 80 ppm maximum in all of Canada effective January 1, 2002, with some variation possible by region (essentially the California sulfur standard) reduce to 150 ppm annual average and 200 ppm maximum in all of Canada effective January 1, 2002; or defer further action on sulphur levels in Canada and match in the future the least restrictive U.S. fuel requirement of the new national vehicle standards expected in the 2004 time frame. On the last option, it must be noted that British Columbia has already taken regulatory action to reduce the sulfur content of gasoline sold in that province.

The International Joint Commission is an independent international organization established by the United States and Canada under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. Three members are appointed by the President of the United States and three by the Government of Canada. The Commission deals with transboundary environmental issues on the request of both governments to prevent and resolve disputes.

Additional information about the IJC and the International Air Quality Advisory Board can be obtained on the Internet at