To meet city code but not follow soot: the NYC “boiler dilemma” – New York Environmental News

In a large church room in Murray Hill, New Yorkers attended presentations on alternatives to converting boilers to natural gas in an effort to solve the “boiler dilemma.”

As part of the Mayor’s PlaNYC 2030, the City has adopted rules that require buildings burning #6 heating oil to switch to #4, #2, natural gas or biodiesal by boiler certificate expiration date or by 2015, then completely to #2, natural gas or biodiesal by 2030.

Higher number heating oils are considered by City Hall’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability (OLTPS) to emit higher amounts of PM (particulate matter) 2.5. “The particulate matter created by this heating oil contains heavy metals and other pollutants that damage our lungs and hearts, contributing to asthma, and significant life expectancy” according to the PlaNYC update report of 2011. “Each year,” it adds, “PM 2.5 pollution in New York City causes more than 3,000 deaths, 2,000 heart conditions for lung and heart conditions, and approximately 6,000 emergency department visits for asthma in children and adults.”

The air quality strategy came subsequently to a 2009 report entitled “Bottom of the Barrel” by EDF (Environmental Defense Fund) and Urban Green (US Green Building Council, New York chapter). The report highlighted the black smoke often seen pouring off the tops of buildings, particularly from #6 and #4 oils and outlined a detailed map to making policy and technical change.

All five boroughs and some surrounding areas fall below the EPA’s 2006 standards for PM 2.5. About 120 counties of the roughly 3000 in the US fall below these standards. Up to 70% of the PM 2.5 in NYC can come from beyond the City, from “traffic, industry, and power plants… [and] mid-western power plants and factories” according to the PlaNYC update report of 2011.

However, most of the remaining soot pollution, or PM 2.5 emissions comes from buildings, especially 9000 of which that burn #6 heating oil, or just 1% of all the buildings in the City, according to these reports. The EDF provides a map of distribution of buildings that burn 6 and 4 heating oils and it may surprise environmental justice scholars. Number 6 oils, for example, are exclusive to area codes 10021, 10024 and and 10025, or, in other words, the Upper East and Upper West Sides. The reports don’t specify, however, where the people suffering from this pollution live. More significant combinations of poor environmental conditions exist in different area codes.

Nevertheless, the City looks out for communities with disproportionate environmental conditions and health symptoms. The Plan states: “415 City schools-roughly one third of all schools-burn numbers 4 or 6 heating oil, including 232 schools that burn Number 6. Many of these are in neighborhoods where the asthma rates are more than three times higher than the national average.” The City is phasing out higher level heating oils in schools as well and it is prioritizing schools in neighborhoods with the worst asthmatic conditions, particularly in “the Bronx, Harlem, Central Brooklyn, and along Jamaica Bay in Queens.”

“The Boiler Dilemma” was an episode of the Renew New York presentation and discussion series, which is organized by anti-fracking organizations and climate-focused allies in New York. Clearly the intent was not to resist the mandated phase out of high polluting oil, but to seek loopholes as to not be forced to use natural gas, especially the increasing amount from the Marcellus Shale.

Though the foci of the event was solar power, efficiency and biodiesal, one panelist, efficiency-focused architect Chris Benedict, distributed a leaflet co-written by Henry Gifford that claimed that the new boiler conversion rules might be fraudulent. The central argument made in the letter to the audience was that the City should focus on using less energy, not creating any dilemma.

The Benedict-Gifford leaflet suggests that the study, “Bottom of the Barrel” singles out “filterable” particulate, “as most of the other data [in an EPA report] does not show big differences in the characteristics of fuels.” The EPA report mentioned, states that “filterable particulate matter emissions depend predominantly on the grade of fuel fired” but that PM emissions are also affected by other factors, such as boiler load and oil sulfur content in the case of residual oil burning. The Benedict-Gifford article adds other conditions: “The burner may not be installed or tuned properly, or the nozzle that sprays the oil before it is burned may not be the correct nozzle.”

It adds that gas boilers can emit carbon monoxide at dangerous levels but the difference is carbon monoxide is invisible, while soot is extremely noticeable, and will “generate a complaint and be corrected.”

In the short term, the 2015 deadline only applies to buildings burning #6 oils, which are exclusively in the Upper West and Upper East Sides. The buildings can switch to 4 or 2 oils for now or switch to gas or biodiesal or a hybrid. (It was disclaimed by Dehran Duckworth of Tri State Biodiesal that “biodiesal” is not to be confused with “biofuels.” When done properly, he said, there aren’t any deforestation or agricultural problems and the transportation uses biodiesal in a closed-loop cycle. The difference between the two/ which one is better? Treehugger refers to this as the “$64,000 question” and “the fundamental philosophical question of our day”).

It states in a Renew New York pamphlet distributed at “Boiler Dilemma” that “some buildings are rushing to convert” to natural gas due to “its current low price and incentives.” Amongst many other variables, the it is claimed in the pamphlet that “converting boilers entirely to natural gas requires the highest upfront costs of all the options.” (Costs associated with conversions to gas may range from $1,000 to 1 million). It continues to say that after a bioheat law takes effect in October, the cost of 4 oil will increase to the price of 2 but 2 mixed with biodiesal will cost as low as 6 “due to a tax credit which has been renewed until 2016.

Thus the pamphlet suggests that the way around the dilemma is to stick with oil, as long as it’s #2 mixed with biodiesal, at least in the immediate. The choice of panelists of course, though, suggests a broader goal, to use less energy altogether and to harness renewable sources.

Post note: “Higher grade heating oils” was changed to “higher number.”