Petrol (Lead Content)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th April 1976.

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Photo of Mr Trevor Skeet Mr Trevor Skeet , Bedford 12:00 am, 5th April 1976

When the matter was last discussed in the House, it was said that lead from the atmosphere was only one of the causes of the intake of lead by human beings. More comes from smelters and more is ingested through food and drink and other sources.

The matter has been considered by a Select Committee in another place, where it was discovered on the best possible evidence that there is no emergency situation. It was decided that the House should look at it and that it would be appropriate if lead were phased out of petrol over a number of years but that no drastic move should be taken now. There have been arguments that it should be reduced to 0·15 grammes per litre. That would have an extremely severe effect in the United Kingdom, and should be avoided. A reduction to 0·40 from the present figure of 0·55 would be more realistic.

Fuel consumption increases with every unit reduction of octane number. The way to increase the octane number is obviously to put in petroleum additives such as tetraethyl lead and tetramethyl lead. If they must be eliminated because of the argument that atmospheric pollution should be entirely removed, it might seem desirable to use other additives, but the petroleum companies have found, after investigations in the United States and elsewhere, no other suitable additives. Over 1,000 compounds have been examined, but none comes up to requirements.

For the internal combustion engine, which powers the modern motor car, to work effectively on the petroleum which it takes in, there must be an alternative method. If less lead is to be used, there must be more aromatics in the petrol. But there is a difficulty. If lead is to be removed, a great deal of expensive equipment will have to be put into refineries. To reduce the figure to 0·40, catalytic crackers would probably be enough, but to reduce it to the level in West Germany—0·15—a great deal of equipment would have to be installed, including catalytic crackers, platformers and alkylation equipment. There would be a substantial increase in imports, adding to balance of payments difficulties.

Another problem is that the refinery balance would be severely upset, because the refinery yields would cease to match market requirements. This has been found in West Germany. There would be a change in refinery operations to produce high-octane gasoline and increased quantities of products already on the market in surplus, and that would mean more fuel oil.

It has been estimated that the eight other countries of the Common Market would have to invest a total of $1,000 million in additional equipment needed to produce 0·15 grammes per litre with an octane rating of 98. It would be very costly for the motorist, because he would have to pay an increased price for his petrol—2p or perhaps more. The Government would increase their take, largely because the price of petrol would rise and there is an excise duty on it. There would be further inconvenience to the motorist because of the additional problems which would be introduced.