The EU refining industry has reduced its environmental footprint by continually increasing its energy integration and investments in efficiency. Moreover, the widespread use of cogeneration and advanced catalyst technology allows for even further energy gains. The result: since 1990, the refining sector has improved its energy efficiency by 1% per year.
European refiners have made significant investments to ensure their compliance with some of the world’s most stringent air quality (SO₂, NOx and particulate matter emissions), water quality and soil protection rules. This has played a large role in reducing their environmental footprint. In fact, the amount of sulphur emitted by EU refineries has been halved since 1998. The quality of effluents has improved greatly and, over the past 30 years, refineries have decreased the amount of oil discharged into water tenfold.
The potential for CO2 reductions in various fuel supply options should be assessed through a Well-to-Wheel GHG analysis. In other words, it should run from production to consumption and thus avoid merely moving emissions between sectors and/or industries or regions. A Well-to-Wheel analysis applies to all segments of the transportation sector; namely road, aviation and maritime.
This kind of analysis accounts for the complete lifecycle of GHG emissions. For petroleum-based transport fuels (gasoline and diesel), per unit of energy, approximately 15% of GHG emissions occur in the fuel’s production phase, while about 85% occurs during consumption.
In order to have an effective impact on overall CO2 emissions, this life-cycle analysis should form the basis for future industrial and policy targets. The EU’s current approach to the growth of diesel fuel demand is a good example of the impact the Well-to-Wheel approach has.
Since most EU refineries were initially configured to meet the demand for gasoline and fuel oil, they have struggled in meeting the recent, growing demand for diesel. The gasoline to diesel ratio, which was 2:1 in 1990, has now been inversed to 2:6.
The process of making diesel is very energy intensive, and its production process releases more CO2 than the process for making gasoline. To meet European market needs, refiners are already investing in heavy technology for extracting more diesel from heavier product streams. The resulting processes will inevitably increase energy consumption – and CO2 emissions.
The net result of all this is that any reductions in energy and CO2 emissions that diesel engines provide are offset by the production process’s high emission levels. The Well-to-Wheel balance is thus vital when examining the overall impact of fuel choices in the EU. To address this imbalance, the hidden subsidies that some energy products like of diesel, and the associated market distortion they create, should be re-examined and brought in line with current and future European regulations.