The problem of pollutants in crude oil and its products has been with us ever since its discovery and refining started. Crude by nature contains contaminants, such as sulphur, and the combustion of its products tends to produce harmful emissions to health and environment.

As consumption of oil products increased, it became important for the industry to clean them up even before governments imposed such requirements. When hydrogen became available in refineries as a result of upgrading naphtha, the refiners since the early 1960s used it with a catalyst to rid the products of as much sulphur as possible.

The Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) produced a study about ‘The production of clean fuels in OAPEC member countries’, where it traced the evolution of petroleum product specifications in major consuming countries and regions. The study is highly recommended for specialists and policymakers for its clarity and extent of its content.

Since the mid-1970s, legislation has pushed the industry into a race with itself to meet new and more demanding specifications on oil products, to protect health, equipment and the environment, especially in congested cities. Transportation fuels represent over 60 per cent of oil consumption and therefore legislation is rightly aimed at improving specifications of these fuels.

As for gasoline, lead is no longer used to boost octane. Volatile organic compounds are limited and, most importantly, there has been the consistent reduction in sulphur content from 1,000 parts per million (ppm) 30 years ago to the current lows of 50ppm and 10ppm. Sulphur is the nemesis of fuels and its removal improves everything, including exhaust emissions to the atmosphere.

In the case of diesel too, there has been an improvement in specifications whereby the aromatic content has gradually reduced and sulphur from as high as 10,000ppm to as low as 50- and 10ppm.

In both cases there are secondary parameters which were also modified in line with the main specs. Naturally, the process was gradual and took more than 30 years to allow refineries time to adjust and install the necessary hardware and develop new catalysts to suit the tremendous changes.

Not all countries moved in tandem because circumstances are different, such as the climatic conditions, the environment and the stage of development. For this reason, the Worldwide Fuel Charter divided the countries into five categories taking into account their circumstances, but with the view that all countries eventually converge to the best specifications.

Because of this evolution, the air quality in major cities have improved substantially and health benefits reaped. The engine life and performance improved and fuel savings realised. These benefits justified the huge investments needed in refineries and the marginal increase in fuel prices to consumers was in order.

What is the position of the Arab countries on these developments? Unfortunately, the answer is that we are still behind. There is no denying that major improvements have taken place over the last 20 years but the lack of a strong popular environmental movement allows governments to be slow in reacting.

Gasoline specifications in 2015 with respect to sulphur are at 100ppm in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Algeria, but much higher in others. Still these numbers are a great improvement over those of 10 years ago.

As for diesel, only the UAE specification is at 10ppm sulphur, while Qatar and Bahrain are at 500ppm, Saudi Arabia at 1,000ppm, and all others are much higher.

The cut-off point of the OAPEC study is 2015 and therefore, I dare mention that the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait all have a clean fuel programme that involves projects to produce low and ultra-low sulphur fuels to improve the local environment, protect health and, at the same time, maintain export markets demanding higher specification fuels.

These projects are well underway and their completion will undoubtly reflect on official specifications and in the quality of products.

In conclusion, I would say that health and clean air in tandem with the creation of of a modern economy requires clean fuels and direct and indirect advantages far outweigh their investment-related costs.

Saadallah Al Fathi is a former head of the Energy Studies Department at the Opec Secretariat in Vienna.