Dirty Heating Oil, Begone

Dirty Heating Oil, Begone

July 25, 2011 at 1:37 pm

An old public service announcement in the subways advised New Yorkers to keep their furnaces clean. Decades later, building boilers still account for a major share of the city's air pollution. Gotham Gazette/Ian Wescott

Black smoke spewing from building tops is not exactly a summertime image — us New Yorkers like our heating oil issues to emerge at seasonally appropriate times, like Thanksgiving, thank you very much.

But after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in April that the city would begin phasing out the two worst kinds of oil by 2030, some buildings figured they better start cleaning up their act — and soon.

More than 86 percent of all of New York City’s heating oil soot pollution comes from only 1 percent of buildings — and that amount exceeds pollution levels produce by cars and trucks, city officials reported last spring.

After weighing the costs and benefits of going green, board members at a co-op in Greenwich Village decided to switch to cleaner heating oil, the New York Times reported. The building has spent nearly $6 million on their efforts to go green, which included everything from installing new windows and light bulbs to switching from heating oil to natural gas.

Why wait to convert to cleaner grades of heating oil? For decades, dirty heating oil, often referred to as No.6 and No. 4 residual oil, has been used as a cheap method to heat buildings. Last April, Bloomberg announced that the city would begin phasing out the two worst kinds of oil by 2030. More than 10,000 residential buildings and 200 public schools with existing boilers that use No. 6 oil must switch to the No. 4 heating oil (or a cleaner type of fuel) by 2015. Newly installed boilers are now required to burn even cleaner oil, known as low-sulfur No. 2, which would phase out No. 4 oil by 2030, the New York Times reported.

The Clean Heat Campaign is part of the mayor’s environmental agenda, known as PlanNYC, which has a goal of reducing carbon emissions and cleaning up the region’s air and water quality. When No. 6 and No. 4 heating fuel are burned they release toxic nickel and heavy soot, or black carbon, into the air, according to the 2009 Bottom of the Barrel report by Environmental Defense. High levels of these pollutants in the air can cause serious health effects, such as increased cardiovascular disease and serious respiratory problems, the Gotham Gazette reported. Nickel levels in New York are nine times higher than those in other U.S cities. Conversely, No. 2 heating oil and natural gas emit 95 percent and 96 percent less soot pollution than heating oil No. 6, and both “eliminate harmful nickel emissions,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

About 10,000 residential buildings and more than 200 public schools are impacted by the new regulations. Building owners told the New York Times that in these tough economic times the costly conversation to switch to a cleaner grade of oil is their biggest challenge. The city plans to pay for the conversation of 198 public schools to No. 4 oil — the other 32 will get new boilers and burn No. 2 oil.

It costs roughly $8,000 to convert a school’s boiler from No. 6 to No. 4 oil, for a total of about $1.7 million for all 198 schools. Converting a single boiler to No. 2 oil or natural gas requires a full boiler replacement, which costs more than $1.7 million, Gotham Gazette reported.

City Council Member Gale Brewer told Gotham Gazette that it may make more sense for the city to convert directly to No. 2 oil as No. 4 oil is set to be phased out by 2030.

But in a city that just barely avoided a massive teacher layoff, it’s unclear how New York can afford to put better boilers in the basement of schools.