Diesel fuel engines are getting cleaner

Diesel fuel (produced from crude oil) produces many harmful emissions when it is burned, and diesel fueled vehicles are major sources of harmful pollutants such as ground level ozone and particulate matter. To address this problem, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established standards for the sulfur content of diesel fuel and developed emission control technologies for new diesel engines.

The front of a semi-trailer truck
the front of a semi truck

Source: Stock photography (copyrighted)

EPA standards require a major reduction in the sulfur content of diesel fuels. To meet the EPA standards, the petroleum industry is producing Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) fuel, a cleaner-burning diesel fuel containing a maximum 15 parts-per-million (ppm) sulfur. By 2014, all diesel fuel sold in the United States was required to be ULSD fuel.

The EPA also established emissions control standards for diesel-powered highway vehicles for model year 2007 and later. These engines are designed to operate only with ULSD fuel. Using ULSD fuel and advanced exhaust control systems can reduce vehicle particulate emissions by up to 90% and nitrogen compounds (NOx) by 25–50%. ULSD fuel helps reduce emissions in older engines as well.

Even with these advances, diesel fuel still contributes significantly to air pollution in the United States because it will take a long time for new cleaner-burning diesel vehicles to replace older vehicles.

Carbon dioxide emissions

About 22.4 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) are produced when a gallon of diesel fuel is burned. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is linked to global climate change. Diesel engines get better fuel economy than gasoline powered engines, so the amount of CO2 produced for each mile traveled may be lower in a vehicle with a diesel engine.