Heating Oil Emissions are Cleaner than You Think
by Greg Burt
Over 8 million American households, mostly in the Northeastern states, rely on heating oil to keep warm in winter. Proponents of alternative fuels, such as natural gas, wood (including pellets) and electricity have often tried to make the case that home heating oil is a “dirty fuel.” Electric power, in particular, has been touted as “clean energy” because it produces no emissions at the point of use. But electric power generating plants, often fired by coal, can be major polluters.
The fact is that residential oil burners (ROB’s) are a negligible source of air pollution. ROB’s, according to the most recent figures available, produce less than one-third of one percent of total particulate emissions in the United States.
The reason is twofold. First, today’s residential home heating oil is cleaner than ever before – about 95% cleaner, in fact, than the home heating oil of several decades past. Today’s home heating oil burns so cleanly that it is not subject to any clean air regulations. Secondly, modern oil burners are so efficient that their emissions are approaching zero. A study conducted at the Brookhaven National Laboratory concluded: “Residential oil burners generally, and modern equipment specifically, are not significant national emission sources.”
All combustible fuels contain potential air pollutants which may take the form of particulate matter and greenhouse gases. But home heating oil compares favorably to the alternatives. Data from both the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that emissions from residential oil burners account for only a tiny fraction of the total emissions from all combustion sources. The chart below illustrates this fact:
Total Emissions (Millions of Tons per Year)
The EPA and DOE studies showed that particulate emissions from ROB’s are 14 times lower than the average of all other combustion sources, nitrogen oxide rates four times lower, carbon monoxide 53 times lower, and hydrocarbon emissions 43 times lower.
The sulfur content of heating oil has also been reduced dramatically from that which was available a few decades ago. And, as new ultra-low sulfur fuel now sold for highway use finds its way into residential heating, sulfur oxide emissions will become virtually non-existent.