API Agrees to Automakers’ Proposal


The American Petroleum Institute has agreed in principle with a proposal by automakers to modify the process for adopting engine oil quality upgrades.

Members of both the auto and lubricants industries, however, emphasized that it remains to be seen how well the amended process will work.

In late 2000, the International Lubricants Standardization and Approval Committee, which represents U.S. and Japanese automakers,proposed a modification in the new category development process. They blamed that process for a two-year delay in approval of API SL, the newest standard for passenger car motor oils, which hit the market last summer. Automakers insisted on having authority for the two major upgrade functions – identifying the need for a new category and setting test limits.

One of ILSACs carrots to API was continued support of its annual $2 million licensing and audit program. Its hammer was that, if API declined to support its position, ILSAC or individual vehicle manufacturers would go it alone, that is, develop the next standard on their own.

Early on, ILSAC agreed that API would have an equal say in determining need. There is a shared understanding of the need for a new category – which will be referred to during drafting as GF-4 – because significantly tightened EPA emissions limits for 2004 are already in place. But API wanted to keep its oar in the water with respect to setting test limits and spent the year debating this issue.

In November, ILSAC presented its final take-it-or-leave-it proposal to API which, shorn of the chaff, was little different from its original proposal. The bottom line was ILSACs insistence that it would set the specification limits and not permit any process stalling. It gave API until the end of the year to respond.

API met ILSACs deadline. In its agreement in principle with ILSACs proposal, API kept a fairly large oar in the water, at least on paper. Both trade associations will work on developing test limits. The timeline will be set with mutual input, but ILSAC will have the authority to break a stalemate in limit setting if needed to keep to the timeline. In short, ILSAC can prevent a stall; it can keep the process moving on its terms.

The agreement in principle was an icebreaker but as several participants put it, the devil is in the details. ILSAC member Mike McMillan of GM pointed out a couple of them. GF-4s timing is based on an inflexible time schedule. We might have to ask for tests that havent received full ASTM approval. How do we handle that possibility? Weve got to have GF-4 specs in place by the end of the year, and so API 1509 will probably have to be modified by mid-year, a really tight deadline. Demonstration oils cant stall the process, either. Above all, weve got to avoid a stalled process, as happened in GF-3.

Valvoline’s Fran Lockwood, who chairs APIs Lubricants Committee, pointed to the core issue. Its important for us to turn our attention to GF-4. Weve got to begin work on that very soon. When the new process starts getting applied well know a lot more on how well it will work.

ExxonMobils Lowell Norris, the Lubricants Committees savvy immediate past chairman, noted, Weve got an understanding in concept but now we need to get busy and do it. And sooner rather than later. Were in the process of determining how our negotiating team will be put together to work out the details. We may, for the first time, let members vote on who they want to represent them in discussion with ILSAC.

API is not without some leverage. Its Publication 1509 is the last word on specifications. Unless lubricant marketers meet all of its requirements API wont license an oil. And only API votes on what goes into its publications. Further, API owns the starburst and donut. The former is important to automakers; since 1994 it has been their primary engine oil recommendation for light-duty vehicles and is prominently referenced in owners manuals.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), representing chemical additives companies, is the third major player in the engine oil quality upgrade process. Its revolutionary proposal last March, to halt new industrywide specifications in favor of individual OEM specifications, remains on the table.

Earlier this year ACC took the initiative to convene industrywide discussions in an attempt to find a GF-4 process acceptable to all. It is following the issue closely, and sources indicate that ACC is not going to oppose the emerging process, at least in principle. Still, the devil is in the details.

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