Council tightens Auto/Oil standards

EU environment ministers agree stricter 2000 limits on sulphur, benzene in fuel

European Union environment ministers last night unanimously agreed to tighten standards for vehicle emissions and fuel quality in two draft directives under the so-called Auto/Oil programme. Described in a Council statement as "long and difficult," the discussions took up a large part of yesterday's Environment Council.

During the talks, the major sticking point was limits for sulphur in petrol for 2000. Most northern European countries wanted a strict limit of 50 parts per million (ppm). Southern member states were very reluctant to budge from the 200 ppm limit proposed by the Commission (ENDS Daily 30 May).

The final compromise was a limit of 150 ppm, effective from 1 January 2000. In an apparent victory for southern member states, countries that can demonstrate "severe socio-economic problems" due to the limit will have up to three years more to meet the limit. This is broadly in line with the derogation agreed by the European Parliament in April (ENDS Daily 10 April).

In the face of considerable opposition, the Dutch Presidency managed to push through "indicative" limits for sulphur in diesel and petrol for 2005. The original Auto/Oil programme contained no provisions for 2005 limits, although some countries at yesterday's meeting wanted to set firm 2005 fuel standards now. After much debate, environment ministers agreed an indicative limit of 50 ppm. The proposed sulphur limit for diesel in 2000 remains unchanged from the Commission's proposal of 350 ppm.

Less controversially, environment ministers also supported stricter limits on benzene and aromatics in petrol. Mirroring the European Parliament's opinion, ministers agreed to reduce the maximum amount of benzene in petrol from the 2% proposed by the Commission to 1%.

Having gained a derogation on the petrol sulphur limit, southern member states also achieved one on leaded petrol. For the EU as a whole, marketing of leaded petrol will be banned from the start of 2000. But countries that can demonstrate that the ban would "result in severe socio-economic problems or would not lead to overall environmental or health benefits" will be allowed to delay a ban until 2005.

The draft directive on vehicle emissions was left virtually untouched by ministers. Limit values for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates remain the same as those proposed by the Commission, with only minor changes made for on-board diagnostics and cold-start testing.

Taken together, the changes made by environment ministers amount to a significant strengthening of the Commission's proposal. But they will almost certainly not be strict enough to satisfy the European Parliament. As the Parliament has equal decision-making powers in this area, it is looking increasingly likely that the two institutions will have to iron out their differences in head-to-head talks next year.

Follow Up:
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