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Rich Kassel’s Blog

Just back from Mexico...

Rich Kassel

Posted February 5, 2008 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, Solving Global Warming

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I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip through Mexico City and Guadalajara, meeting with incredibly committed teams of local environmental NGO and government partners who are trying to solve diesel pollution problems in their cities.

We’re working with great partners in Mexico, including the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA), the Centro Mario Molina, the Centro de Transporte Sustentable (CTS-Mexico), the International Council on Clean Transpotation (ICCT), and others to convince PEMEX, the Mexican oil giant, to switch to the ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel as soon as possible. (Mexico’s regulations require the fuel to be used in the largest cities by January 2009, and nationwide by the fall of 2009. But PEMEX is woefully behind schedule). Last week, Martha Ruth del Toro Gaytan, the Environmental Secretary for the State of Jalisco, invited ICCT and me to help them figure out a diesel strategy for Guadalajara, home to five million people.  (And, according to many, the birthplace of the mariachi band).  It's an exciting new opportunity for our Mexican diesel work. 

It’s always incredibly eye-opening to view our pollution problems through the lens of other cities. Here in New York, so many of us worry about pollution levels all the time—and rightfully so, since we’ve never met EPA’s health standard for particulate matter (PM2.5 or PM10).

But in Mexico City and Guadalajara, the PM levels are typically at least three times the annual guidelines set by the World Health Organization. I’m a runner—and when I run in those cities, my eyes burn and my throat gets scratchy. And, unlike in the U.S., their newest, cleanest buses and trucks still emit ten times as much particulate soot as our new diesels. So, just replacing their oldest diesels isn’t a solution that will work in the long run.

The answer there, as here, is a comprehensive approach to solving the problem. Cleaner, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel would reduce soot levels by about 10 percent from all diesel engines overnight. More important, this cleaner fuel opens the door to the same advanced soot filters that can trap more than 90 percent of the harmful PM emissions.  Getting these filters on all new engines requires ironclad federal regulations.  But getting them on the existing dirty diesels is tougher--and requires a suite of local, state, and federal programs and incentives to work. 

But the first two steps (ultra-low sulfur diesel and new emissions standards) are key.

For readers of a certain age (or for our car buffs), the analogy to leaded gasoline is a good one: just as we had to take the lead out of gasoline to get catalytic converteres and cleaner cars in the 1970s and 1980s, we now have to take sulfur out of the diesel fuel to get advanced pollution filters and cleaner diesel engines today.

This is the model that we used at the beginning of the decade to clean up the transit buses of New York City. Today, NYC Transit buses emit 97 percent less PM soot than a decade ago. It’s also the model that is at the heart of a series of federal rules adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the past eight years. When all of today’s dirty diesels have been replaced by cleaner buses, trucks, farm equipment, construction equipment, and other so-called “nonroad” engines that meet the new standards, there will be 20,000 fewer premature deaths every year in the U.S. These standards are, by far, the most aggressive public health steps taken by the EPA over the past decade.

Now, we are trying to work with our Mexican friends to adapt the New York City bus program and the EPA regulatory approach to Mexico’s diesel fleets. Every time I run in a Mexican city, I’m reminded of how important winning will be.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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