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The Australian Government’s planned phase out of unleaded petrol is on the nose

By Dr Anthony Horton

Earlier this week, the Australian Federal Government announced a plan to phase out unleaded petrol within 2 years. The basis of this plan is unleaded fuel sold in Australia has the highest sulphur concentration of 35 OECD countries – according to the current Australian fuel quality standards, the sulphur concentration of unleaded fuel is 500 parts per million (ppm). As part of their announcement, the Government launched two Regulations and a discussion paper covering fuel quality, vehicle efficiency and vehicle emissions in Australia. Having reviewed these documents, the omission of the health impacts of benzene emissions from petrol leaves me to conclude that the Government’s planned phase out of unleaded petrol is a bit on the nose.

In the Regulations and discussion paper there is a clear focus on the economic impact(s) of increasing the fuel efficiency of vehicles sold in Australia and of tightening Australia’s fuel quality standards. Economic impact(s) are certainly an important consideration – cost benefit analysis has been part of standard business operations for decades. Drilling down into the economic positions presented in these documents however, I find it particularly interesting that the economic impact in terms of health outcomes is discussed in terms of particles, oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) and Sulfur (SOx) and ground level ozone. This is interesting because while particles, NO2 and SO2 and ozone are important emissions from vehicles, a thorough economic assessment of the health outcomes should also include benzene. Benzene has replaced lead in petrol and is an aromatic compound – one of the first chemicals you may smell when filling up your petrol tank.

As someone who has worked in air pollution monitoring and management for more than 15 years and completed a PhD examining the excess lifetime leukaemia risk of exposure to benzene in petrol, I find the omission of benzene from the health outcome discussion disappointing. Like many chemicals, benzene has acute and chronic exposure symptoms and has been known to be carcinogenic (extremely harmful to humans) since the 19th century. The acute (short term) exposure health effects range from dizziness and euphoria to vomiting and loss of consciousness. The chronic (long term) exposure heath effect is leukaemia – based on exposure to very high concentrations over many years in occupational settings. As a result of the link between occupational exposure to benzene and leukemia, benzene has been phased out in many industries in which it was used (e.g. chemical manufacture).

As part of my PhD I conducted a study of personal exposure to benzene in petrol and recruited participants who were not exposed to benzene as a result of their occupation or from smoking. In addition to monitoring participants’ personal exposure, I monitored benzene concentrations at petrol bowsers, along freeways and in multi-storey carparks. Suffice it to say the highest concentrations were found at the bowsers which may surprise some people given that refuelling may only take 1 minute or so (depending on the capacity of the fuel tank). I suspect that many people fill up their vehicle fuel tank without giving much thought to the emissions that are around them.

The last stage of my research was a risk assessment which sought to determine what added cancer risk refuelling once per week posed over a lifetime. I used a World Health Organisation (WHO) risk assessment methodology which based the risk on a lifetime of 70 years. I found that the excess lifetime risk of refuelling once per week was approximately double that of commuting in Perth. Throughout most of North America and Europe, laws have existed for decades which mandate equipment being attached to the bowser hose that is essentially a vacuum. When you insert the nozzle from the bowser into your vehicle fuel tank, the vacuum forms a seal around the nozzle and tank so that your exposure is greatly minimised (if there is any exposure at all). To date, only one Australian state (New South Wales) has introduced a rollout of vapour recovery at petrol bowsers.

A previous article I wrote last year ‘Australian Government review of vehicle emissions has a now familiar aroma of disappointment’ discussed the Federal Government’s announcement of a working group charged with the responsibility of examining the implementation of Euro 6 vehicle emission standards for light duty vehicles (cars and vans), fuel quality standards, fuel efficiency measures for light duty vehicles (focusing on CO2) and vehicle emissions testing. In my article I expressed concern that the Government was ignoring the exposure of petrol station customers to benzene at the point of sale and in this week’s announcement regarding the planned phase out of unleaded petrol, it appears that the Federal Government has again missed an opportunity to reduce air pollution emissions and improve the health outcomes of Australian motorists by failing to acknowledge that any review and discussion of fuel quality and vehicle emissions in Australia must include benzene.


About the author: Anthony Horton holds a PhD in Environmental Science, a Bachelor of Environmental Science with Honours and a Diploma of Carbon Management. He has a track record of delivering customised solutions in Academia, Government, the Mining Industry and Consulting based on the latest wisdom and his scientific background and experience in Climate/Atmospheric Science and Air Quality. Anthony’s work has been published in internationally recognised scientific journals and presented at international and national conferences, and he is currently on the Editorial Board of the Journal Nature Environment and Pollution Technology. Anthony also blogs on his own site, The Climate Change Guy.


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  1. Peter F

    If the “national’ party want ethanol sales to increase, nothing will get in their way under this government.

  2. Terry2

    As I understand it, our petroleum products are refined in Singapore so is it just a matter of asking Singapore to change its refinement processes ?

  3. Jaquix

    They want the easy way out. And to look like they are doing something, while doing sweet fanny adams about the things that matter.

  4. Carol Taylor

    One wonders where are the headlines in the msm? Perhaps a full front page headliner screaming: Is your petrol bowser killing you? The only way that we will get any action from this government is if the msm launch an almighty scare campaign..and why not, they’ve done it for far less important issues. One suspects that it’s the advertising dollars that keeps them silent.

  5. king1394

    Considering the numbers of people who won’t put ethanol petrol in their cars for a range of reasons ranging from the health of their vehicle to a suspicion that turning food crops into fuel crops is not a smart idea, the Government will not get far with this proposal.

  6. Möbius Ecko

    The government has also cited the carbon reduction measures in their proposal for more fuel efficient vehicles, measures they have already counted towards the target they are going to dismally fail to reach. That the government is so confident of reaching the target assures me they are cooking the books in every possible way, and this supposed fuel efficiency measure is certainly one way they are going utilise.

    Already they are counting the emissions savings based on flawed and now discredited factory figures for European and US vehicles instead of using the more accurate third party or government agency assessments required. This government has ruled out bringing in an independent measurement and policing body, which is another sure sign they are going to skew the outcomes. Yet another leave it to industry and blindly trust they will be scrupulously honest with the public policy from the L-NP.

    And finally the other health outcome not counted in the use of vehicle fuels, no matter how efficient, is their addition to anthropogenic global warming and the adverse health and environmental outcomes that is causing.

  7. Miriam English

    Wow. I had no idea lead had been replaced by benzene. Benzene is a terrible chemical with an awful reputation for causing harm.

    Electric vehicles can’t come too soon as far as I’m concerned. Put all these fossil fuel vampires out of business.

  8. Keitha Granville

    I was delighted to see an electric vehicle charging station in a Hobart car park this week – bring it on

  9. nurses1968

    My boss’s wife and daughter both have Tesla S models and the initial problem was the main Tesla Supercharger charging stations were spaced at a fair distance, Newcastle,Sydney,Goulburn,Canberra but the number of charging points are popping up everywhere at Restaurants, Motels and the like, The onboard navigation screen will direct you to the closest one and gives you multiple options if you are planning a trip,Supposedly 7000+ charging points will be online in Australia in 2017.They charge at home overnight or at a Tesla Supercharger which only takes about half an hour.The smaller outlets are much slower.

  10. Miriam English

    Great to know, nurses1968.

    I can’t remember where I read it, but in an interview a while back Elon Musk was talking about intending to eventually have large solar arrays at many charging stations so they wouldn’t even need to depend too heavily on the grid.

    Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) have just recently posted an article, trumpeting a soon-to-be-released report on RMI’s work showing how temperature increase can be limited to 1.5 degrees C instead of the usual depressing projections of greater than 2 degrees. This is quite exciting and notes the nature of change can often be breathtakingly swift. They note that stocks in electric vehicles have been doubling in recent years!! The article is an easy read. I’m looking forward to the report.

    The days of fossil fuels are numbered. They just don’t see it yet.

  11. nurses1968

    Miriam English
    I’ve had a couple of drives of the Teslas and they are incredible although getting used to NO motor sound is strange.People just don’t realise the capabilities of these cars,now long removed from the novelty category.It was pointed out to me that these Tesla S’s can outrun a V8 falcon or Holden in a drag race which doesn’t please the boss who drives a thundering big V8.

  12. Michael Taylor

    It doesn’t take much to drag off a Holden.

  13. Miriam English

    nurses1968, here is one of my favorite shorts I like to show people when they talk about electric cars as if they are all like milk carts or golf caddies. You might enjoy it too:
    World’s fastest street legal electric car (9:45)

  14. Gangey1959

    You may be right MT, but a battery on wheels doesn’t have anywhere near the style of an FJ Holden, or a 32 Ford V8 rod.
    Besides, does the Tesla come as a Ute, or can it tow?
    Just a shame the mad monk decided in his infinite stupidity that Australia could do without it’s own car industry, which cost us the global manufacture of the Holden (ok, GM) electric vehicle.

  15. Michael Taylor

    What’s with this “may be right”? I was right. ?

  16. Jexpat

    I have a question for Dr. Horton:

    Why do Australian petrol stations refuse to install EVR (Enhanced Vapor Recovery) nozzles and other equipment that’s engineered to trap and toxic emissions and prevent gasoline leakage from their bowsers?

    Actually, the question should be re-phased as: why aren’t they required to?

  17. Miriam English

    Gangey1959, not only can electric vehicles tow, they can do so better than internal combustion vehicles because they have full torque right from standstill so have no need of gears.

    Internal combustion engines have a very narrow region of revs where they have maximum torque, which is why they require the heavy, expensive, complicated system of gears and clutch, or even worse, automatic transmission.

    Electric vehicles can also dispense with ignition system, carburettor, fuel pump, oil filter, oil pump, complex system of valves and pistons, cooling water jacket, water pump, radiator, heavy metal head, and so on. Instead, they have one or more electric motors, the battery pack, and the controller. And because they don’t need all that petrol and oil they’re much cleaner to work on.

    As for style, I think they are waaaayyyy cooler looking and sounding. Just take a look at the new electric Corvette. 🙂 Some of the new electric vehicles look incredibly glamorous and futuristic.

    I agree. That idiot Abbott killed an industry that might have built an Australian electric vehicle. Still, there is an enormous number of talented car engineers now looking for a future. Maybe they’ll start up an electric vehicle company.

  18. Jexpat

    Still hoping that Dr. Horton (or someone else knowledgable about the matter) can answer the question. I’ve posed it several times to people, including public officials who I thought might know the answer, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who does or who could at least point me onto the right track in finding out more.

  19. Zathras

    An interesting thing about electric cars is that the amount of energy it takes to manufacture them is greater than the amount of energy they save during their working life. In that regard, they are a nett loss to the environment and worse than petrol powered vehicles.

    A study was done when the Prius was released onto the market which showed that electric/hybrid cars require additional (and sometimes rare) mineral elements for the electrical and battery components and those have to be added to the total energy needed for its manufacture.

    When you add that extra manufacturing cost plus the additional energy used by mining, transporting and processing those additional mineral components it becomes more about “feeling good as a consumer” than “doing good for the planet”.

    It would be environmentally more responsible to have a single economical world car (of perhaps a few models) and keep using the existing processing plants that have been established before dumping a plethora of energy-hungry consumer items onto the world market.

    There will be time to decide on a universal electric car solution while the existing petrol manufacturing plants eventually wear out. rather than add to AGW by manufacturing additional consumer items that will eventually become landfill.
    The existing cars are likely to be the equivalent of Betamax VCRs, audio cassette tapes and analogue mobile phones.

    Then again – like everything else – it’s always been about consumerism more than about real solutions.

  20. Miriam English

    As technology continues to accelerate solutions to this are coming quickly. I just read recently of a new form of carbon that is magnetic. Just as a diamond differs from graphite in the way the carbon atoms are assembled together, this new form differs too. I don’t know much about it yet, but you couldn’t get a more plentiful or cheap to obtain material than carbon. Carbon offers many advantages over metals. Not only is carbon lighter than metals, some forms of carbon conduct electricity better, as well as being many times stronger.

    Almost all new ways of manufacturing initially cost extra money, not only because the new manufacturing equipment costs have to be amortised, but there is always a trial and error period where the most economical methods are explored. When set against the already paid-off costs of existing equipment and processes they will almost always be more expensive. The cheapest, most efficient ways of producing old, established technology have already been solved over many decades.

    Another aspect to consider is that many (most? all?) of the rare earth minerals come from meteorites that have fallen to Earth. NASA has just announced two new asteroid missions. One to the Jovian Trojan asteroids (they’re held in place by Jupiter and orbit together with it in clusters). The other mission will be visiting a giant, 210 kilometer diameter, metal asteroid. This, for me, is really exciting because it could usher in a new gold rush — not for gold, but for nearly pure iron, nickel, and other metals (possibly gold too). The rare earth minerals are probably not so rare at all.

    Lastly, I’m wary of assessments of the energy cost of making certain things, especially of technologies that challenge the existing paradigm. They often seem to come from people who have an ideological opposition to renewable energy or new technologies. They have to examined very carefully for distorting underlying assumptions. They often add in costs that don’t actually relate to the technology itself, or choose the most expensive way of doing something, or don’t allow for improvements in manufacturing. These kinds of distortions also work the other way, where they neglect to add in subsidies often given to old technologies. They also often don’t complete the calculations, but stop at a point where it is advantageous to the older technology, for instance the amount of energy in a battery doesn’t compare well with petroleum, weight for weight, but when you compare how much energy is lost using that energy, things change dramatically. Around half the energy of petroleum is lost as waste heat, and even more in running equipment to shunt that heat away. More energy still is lost in having to use heavy, costly gears and clutch or even heavier and more costly automatic gears to make the narrow band of power per revs of a petroleum engine usable. An electric vehicle needs none of this.

    Electric motors always used to be made without super-strong niobium magnets, they merely have a lower efficiency. If our society changes its way of doing things so that we travel less and use the internet more, then this isn’t a great problem. No matter what we do, we can’t keep depending upon fossil fuels. That much is absolutely certain. We now have to choose the best way forward.

  21. Ian Parfrey

    Electric vehicle propulsion is a great idea BUT both ends of the fuel chain need serious consideration.

    The production of the electricity that goes into the storage batteries in the vehicles needs to be 100% renewable for any viable effect to be gained otherwise all we will do is transfer the pollution from the end user to the power generators. Then research into production, weight reduction, safety, recharge rate/speed and longevity of the storage batteries without the use of dangerous chemicals must also be done concurrently with the electric power generation to make electric vehicles truly viable.

    In the meantime, hydrogen would be a useful stop gap or even a total replacement for petroleum fuels in motor vehicles. Hydrogen in – water out.

  22. Harquebus

    Hydrogen as an energy source is unrealistic.
    “The laws of physics mean the hydrogen economy will always be an energy sink.”

    “Renewable energy sources are often advocated for their low CO2 emissions at point of use, but the overall product lifecycle is often forgotten about completely. In addition, many chemical products are needed in mining operations, leading to severe long-term pollution.”

    Is renewable energy really environmentally friendly?

    Miriam English
    I thought of you when I read this. I put myself in the “H” camp. You are most definitely a “T”.

    Some history that I recently came across.


  23. Miriam English

    Harquebus, hydrogen is not an energy source, true, but I’ve never heard of anybody suggesting that it is. It is an energy storage system allowing people to carry it and use it to extend the usefulness of existing technology. As such it has its place.

    All energy storage systems lose energy along the way. The only reason oil looks any good at all is that we’re able to ignore the first incredibly wasteful part of its process: the very low efficiency in turning solar power into plant matter and its fermentation underground for millions of years. But as you know, oil is over.

    We need replacements. The sun (solar, wind, hydro, wave), moon (tidal), and Earth’s core heat (geothermal) are the only ones we have. Hydrogen is a way to store that energy in a form that works in existing technology. Its saving comes in not having to discard enormous amounts of machinery immediately.

    Harquebus, you have to widen the scope of your vision and stop being so sucked in by nay-sayers and prophets of doom.

    The production of energy from renewable sources keeps becoming more and more efficient as more research is done and industrial processes get fine-tuned. To complain that it is not already where you want it to be is not just impatient, but actually misinforms. On every front fossil fuels are beginning to lose the race.

    Fossil fuel advocates want more and more, relying on greed to lead us further into the quagmire. Renewable energy advocacy is generally intertwined with a desire for efficiency and low energy use. In that direction lies hope.

    Regarding electric tractors: of course they lost out way back in the 1930s. They wouldn’t have if they’d had today’s efficient electronic controls and higher storage capacity batteries and today’s extremely powerful electric motors designs.

    Electric tractors and trucks are experiencing a resurgence of interest because in the intervening period many of the problems that made them impractical have been solved. And over the next decade we will see the electric engine landscape alter completely again. There is a massive amount of work being done in that area now.

    I’m sorry, but the puerile article attempting the classification of people into 3 absurd groups based on false definitions struck me as no more relevant than astrology’s attempt to classify people into 12 fictional groups. I would like to be kinder to the author, but I frankly couldn’t see any redeeming features in it at all. He begins by misclassifying people into silly groups then just gets worse.

  24. Miriam English

    Ian Parfrey, quite right. All aspects of electric transport are being very heavily researched at the moment. Many people have been working on electricity storage systems, battery, supercapacitor, and hybrids of both. You can see work by Robert Murray-Smith on Youtube. He has been developing completely recyclable devices made from non-toxic ingredients that outperform existing batteries. In September last year he posted a practical example of a home-built non-toxic battery that is many times better than a lead-acid battery and is roughly comparable to lithium ion batteries:

    Last month he posted a followup video to say it is still working fine.

    His newer models have about twice the energy density of lithium ion batteries.

    Elon Musk has a grand vision of using solar power to refill his electric cars. He has invested in a new solar roof system that makes your roof into a solar collector instead of putting solar panels on your roof. And of course his Tesla Wall, which is a giant storage battery that takes that solar power and runs your house and recharges your (Tesla) electric car (which he’s also very successfully making).

    There is something to be said for hydrogen in extending the usefulness of existing technology, softening the phase-out of old machinery, and I’m in favor of that, however in the long run internal combustion engines have no hope of competing against electric vehicles. The inefficiency of internal combustion engines is tolerable when we can just dig the oil out of the ground and ignore how it was created, but as soon as we have to make the stuff or its replacement ourselves I think electric engines win easily.

  25. townsvilleblog

    nurses1968 that’s the problem you have to be a boss to be able to afford one, it will be a long time before we working class people are able to buy one.

  26. nurses1968

    You have it right there, brilliant cars, had a ball driving them and I’d love one but they cost more than my townhouse did :-{

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