Unlicensed Motor Oils: Bane or Boon?


DETROIT – More consumer education and more government enforcement were two of the reactions to the significant volumes of unlicensed motor oils in the marketplace, aired at an Open Forum at SAEs Fuels and Lubricants Council here on April 12.

The American Petroleum Institutes voluntary licensing and certification program authorizes engine oil marketers whose products meet specified requirements to use APIs trademarked donut or starburst on those engine oils. Only oils meeting current specifications can be licensed; vehicle manufacturers generally recommend only licensed oils. Unlicensed oils include a wide array of products, from the so-called SA oils which contain no additives and can damage engines, to oils that meet obsolete specifications, to a few high-quality oils like ExxonMobils new synthetic Mobil 1 Extended Performance oil.

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Four industry representatives – two lubricant manufacturers, an automaker and an association executive – presented their perspectives on the roles of unlicensed motor oils at the Forum.

Harvey Golubock, president of American Refining Group, Bradford, Pa., spoke from the perspective of the independent compounder, setting the tone by saying, You cant mix low quality and high quality in the same plant.

Golubock presented a number of issues for consideration. What, he asked, is a definition of unlicensed oil and are all unlicensed oils necessarily bad?

Obviously, he continued, all the early API categories are not licensable, especially the non-detergent SA and SB gasoline [engine] oils, as well as many of the older diesel oil designations. But what about oils manufactured for export? Then there are the high-mileage oils and even some synthetics that may also not meet API licensing requirements.

Golubock turned his attention to the consumer. Is the consumer always right? And does the consumer know what he is asking for? How does the consumer know what he is getting? And how and when does the manufacturer or seller say no to a request to produce an unlicensed product? Finally, independent compounders particularly, but certainly not solely, must address the question, If we dont do it, someone else will.

Several ethical issues face the independent compounder, said Golubock, including consideration of the suppliers obligation to ensure that the product is correctly labeled, that the customer will use the product in the proper manner and in the appropriate application, and that suppliers will take responsibility for line wash or line flush, which Golubock defined as products flushed from transfer lines or blending tanks between batches of products.

Improper usage of petroleum products, and the short and long term consequences on equipment of using unsuitable lubricants raise serious issues about low-quality unlicensed oils. There really isnt a level playing field, and we are all – suppliers, blenders, distributors and marketers – responsible, Golubock said. But how do we police ourselves, and where do we go from here? Do we need or want government intervention to ensure compliance?

General Motors Robert Stockwell presented the results of last years Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers report, Impact of Low Quality Oils on Engine Wear and Sludge Deposits. The report offered concrete evidence that API category SA engine oils are likely to cause serious damage and lead to increased emissions if used in engines built since the 1940s. (See Lube Report, Jan. 12, 2005, Automakers: SA Oils Do Serious Damage.)

Representatives of the two trade associations whose members manufacture and sell almost all of the motor oil in the United States contended that consumer education is a key solution to problems posed by low-quality unlicensed oils.

James Taglia, president of Nor-Lakes Services Midwest in Hugo, Minn., and currently president of the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association, Alexandria, Va., also pointed to the problem of line wash.

We buy several hundred gallons of line wash every year, which we use for bar-and-chain applications, a legitimate usage, Taglia said. However, we understand some marketers are simply relabeling line wash as engine oil, which is not an ethical usage. Consumer education will not address this issue; it has to be addressed at the manufacturer level.

Taglia stressed, however, that consumer education is important to increase public awareness of the other ethical issues facing the industry.

Dennis Bachelder of API in Washington, D.C., pointed out that since older, technically obsolete API service category oils are still in the marketplace, this is a source of confusion. He added, Unlicensed engine oils may meet performance standards, but it is difficult for API to verify unless they are licensed. Consumers should be aware of the API service category, but also the brand, quality, and certification for an engine oil. Consumer education on engine oil performance is key to assuring proper selection of oils for modern engines.

In a follow-up discussion, Bachelder said, Some consumers, such as the do-it-yourself consumers, are aware of the API service categories and make informed decisions. However, based on my observation, other consumers are unaware of the meaning of the newest engine oil categories. They find references to obsolete categories and become confused. They may not realize that the new categories are backward compatible. Hence consumers often find it easier to defer decisions on engine oil performance to the service professionals at do-it-for-me service centers.

To promote consumer education, API provides educational aids to improve understanding to the engine oils system, Bachelder said. For example, the engine oil shelf card explaining car model years covered by each API category is available free as a download from www.API.org.

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