Cape Town - Motorists could have a choice between four different petrols by 2006. They would probably also pay far less for lower-octane than higher-octane petrol.
As part of government's strategy to reduce harmful emissions, refineries will no longer be allowed by January 2006 to add lead to petrol.
According to suggestions in a concept strategy document of the departments of environmental affairs and tourism as well as minerals and energy, motorists at the coast will have a choice between 95-octane lead replacement petrol (LRP) and unleaded petrol (ULP) as well as 91 LRP and ULP. 97-octane will no longer be available.
Colin McClelland, executive director of the South African Petroleum Industry Association (Sapia), the petroleum industry, government and motor manufacturers are still debating which octane petrol should be available in the interior.
The current choices at the coast are between 95-octane ULP and 97-octane leaded petrol, and at some places 97-octane LRP. In the interior, motorists fill up with 93-octane ULP or leaded petrol and 93-octane LRP at some filling stations.
Recommendations in the concept strategy for the control of emissions are that 91 and 95-octane unleaded petrol should also be available in the interior.
Doctor Rod Crompton, deputy director-general of carbon fuels and energy conservation at the department of minerals and energy, said they are still working on the final recommendations.
LRP is the petrol for motorists who have used leaded petrol until now.
Serious financial implications
The possibility that a filling station would have to provide four different petrol types has serious financial implications for filling station owners who would have to build separate storage tanks and put up additional petrol pumps.
McClelland said although no leaded petrol would be produced in South Africa after December 2005, the leaded petrol in tanks at depots, pipelines and filling stations would still be sold before it is replaced with LRP.
Once 97-octane is no longer available, certain older cars might have to be reconditioned to use the lower 95-octane. More information will be available next year on what type of fuel different cars would need and which cars would need to be altered.
Crompton said that octane was being wasted in South Africa and that most cars in the country did not need more than 89-octane - this while the lowest octane available at present is 93-octane.
McClelland said motorists could damage their cars by filling up with fuel too low in octane. But if the car uses the octane that results in optimum functioning of the engine, it is a waste of money to use an octane that is even higher. Higher octane is used under the erroneous belief that the engine would function better.
Because of the extra additions, it is more expensive to produce high-octane fuel and in future, high-octane petrol will be more expensive than low-octane petrol. McClelland said the price difference would probably be much more than the current 3c or 4c a litre between 95-octane ULP and 97-octane leaded petrol at the coast.
Crompton said government was concerned over the waste of expensive higher octane petrol and would consider discouraging motorists through higher prices to not use higher octane than necessary.
Stuart Rayner, chairperson of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa (Naamsa) working group on fuel and exhaust emissions, said many of the about 70% of motorists who currently buy leaded petrol do not even have to use leaded petrol.
It is only cars older than 15 years that have to use leaded petrol.
Last country to switch
There is evidence in other countries that even these cars can run on unleaded petrol without causing harm to the engine. Apart from raising octane levels, lead was initially added to petrol to protect the "soft" metal of which the valve seats are made against erosion.
"South Africa is one of the last countries in the world to switch to unleaded petrol and the concerns over vale seat corrosion was never warranted."
In any case, older cars do not generally travel over such long distances and will therefore experience less of the corrosion the lead is supposed to protect them against.
Rayner said motorists who are still concerned would be able to buy LRP or unleaded petrol and then add a small bottle of lubricant. This was the option taken in New Zealand.
Rayner said nearly 70% of all new passenger vehicles in South Africa are equipped with catalytic converters and legislation will make it compulsory for all new cars to be equipped with these by 2008. Cars with catalytic converters have to use unleaded petrol.
In 1996, Naamsa established a database on the correct petrol for each car.
This was when unleaded petrol was introduced in South Africa for the first time. Rayner said this database would now have to be adapted to make provision for the conditions as they will be as of 2006.