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Editors Note: For more than a decade, David McFall has made this space his own. Each month, LubesnGreases readers could rely on him to be educational, opinionated, entertaining, authoritative. In his 12-year tenure as Automotive Editor, David has explored how the lubricants business works and how it could be better, always shedding light on the people and issues that drive this industry.

As David hands off this column to others, we present a recap of his informative and often prescient writings:

The Emissions Hammer Falls

For the diesel engine oil world, 1998 stretched on like forty miles of bad road.

First, EPA announced that the electronic engine control systems that most truck manufacturers had installed a number of years ago, to maximize over-the-road fuel economy, were in violation of the Clean Air Act. EPAs position was that these control systems (which it termed defeat devices, which are a violation of the Clean Air Act) effectively circumvented the emissions certification process and caused a substantial increase in nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollutants.

After extended negotiations with heavy-duty truck manufacturers, EPA on Oct. 22, 1998 announced a combined penalty of $83 million against six manufacturers (Caterpillar, Cummins, Detroit Diesel, Mack, Navistar and Volvo). Development of new, cleaner engines and some environmental projects added an additional $950 million to the overall cost of the settlement.

That brought an end to the first phase of this unfortunate incident – and turned everyones attention to the next phase – acceleration of new emissions standards and the industrys response. – January 1999

Tooth-and-Claw Competition

Smaller lubricant manufacturers typically have a love-hate relationship with major base oil suppliers like Exxon, Mobil, Sun, Chevron and the others. Compounder/blenders have no choice but to buy raw materials from larger refinery suppliers – and frequently provide specialized contract services to the same companies. Then they face off in the wholesale and retail marketplace against these very same suppliers and erstwhile business partners…

Until a few years ago, the indifference and relative inefficiency of the major oil companies had allowed smaller lubricant producers and marketers to comfortably hold a substantial share of the lubricants market. This comfortable market will now be much less so because of a new aggressiveness and efficiency of the majors. – October 1995

Consumer Menace: SA/SB

Where you primarily find SA oil sold is in a hodgepodge of independent discount stores, convenience stores and discount chains like Family Dollar (which has stocked Warren Oil SA oil for many years) and Dollar General, whose stores are usually, but by no means always, located in poorer urban areas such as downtown Detroit and southeast Washington, D.C. … A LubesnGreases source with considerable boots-on-the-ground market knowledge volunteered, There are hundreds of these kinds of products out there, and some deliberately attempt to pass off this oil as a premium product. …

With little effort, the American Petroleum easily could do better in serving the consumers interest. In its widely distributed Motor Oil Guide, for example, it notes that SA is intended for older engines with no performance requirements. Use only when specifically recommended by the manufacturer.

As a first step, why not include [the] direct warning that SA is not suitable for use in most gasoline-powered engines built after 1930 and could cause unsatisfactory engine performance or equipment harm on APIs motor oil chart? Then the public would have access to a full disclosure of the perils of SA oil. The same suggestion applies to APIs language on SB oil, unfortunately. – June 2003

Note: API eventually revised its Motor Oil Guide to more strongly warn against using obsolete oils.

Pricey, Proliferating Tests

Although the costs are climbing, the number of engine tests required to certify a new gasoline engine oil category has remained nearly constant. GF-1, introduced in 1994, required five engine tests; the current quality level, GF-4, introduced in 2004, requires six.

Its a different story for diesel engine oil. API CD, introduced 50 years ago, required only two engine tests and CF oils, introduced a decade ago, required just three. However, the new PC-10 diesel engine oil category, currently under intensive development and scheduled for commercialization in fourth-quarter 2006, has a battery of 10 engine tests…

If each test is passed on a single try, the price will be $150,000 to qualify a new GF-4 passenger car engine oil.

Qualifying a new PC-10 oil is expected to cost an eye-popping $533,000. – February 2006

Engine Oil a Commodity?

Like a guest with bad manners, the word commodity is an unwelcome visitor at the lubricants industry table. But the starburst is a commodity mark and its here to stay. A question for the next generation of engine oils (GF-3) is: Could the commodity issue be sidestepped by a two-tier system, a robust tier and a regular tier?

If a two-tier market emerges, how will the starburst figure into the equation? – December 1996

Note: In 2001, Valvoline led the charge into a tiered market with its MaxLife product for higher mileage engines; most other brands have followed. Generally, these oils forgo the API starburst.


ILSAC annoys – or much more – many in the lubricants industry. During the approval process for todays GF-2 engine oils, the contentiousness was such that a prominent oil industry spokesman, prior to a detailed critique of GF-2 at a national meeting, felt compelled to declare that he was a chemist not a communist.

But say this for ILSAC: It sets its agenda and then proceeds to implement it. It makes things happen. – November 1997

Shameful Additives

Tucked into a musty corner of the massive petroleum industry, sheltered by the indifference of oil marketers, auto makers, retailers and the American Petroleum Institute, is the $150 million aftermarket lube additive market – a virtual plague of engine oil additives, supplemental additives, oil treatments and engine treatments.

Question One: What real benefit does this mouse milk (to use the oil industrys own snickering phrase) provide?

The answer: None, nada, zip, zero.

Question Two: Do aftermarket lubricant additives cause any harm?

The answer: To engines, some probably do. To consumers and their wallets, yes. And to the environment, a resounding yes. – April 2003

What About Emergencies?

API Publication 1509 permits the American Petroleum Institute to continue licensing provisionally if an interruption occurs in engine testing because of precision or severity problems in an essential engine test. The document is silent, however, on base oil supply interruption. For example, if a major base oil suppliers facility encountered a catastrophic event (fire, explosion, earthquake) that closed it for an extended period, some lubricant manufacturers might be faced with a tough choice – stop production, sell a licensed rebranded product, sell an unlicensed product, or cheat. – March 1996

Note: After Hurricane Rita cut off some 40 percent of U.S. base oil supply in 2005, API rushed to add provisional licensing guidelines to its engine oil licensing rules.

Sluggish ASTM

Winston Churchill once declared that for governing, democracy is the worst system except for all the rest.

Likewise, ASTMs consensus process is the worst system – except for all the rest – for developing new engine oils. But that idea can be severely tested when, after a long afternoons meeting of ASTMs Heavy Duty Classification Panel in December, the outcome is … another meeting. – February 1998

Fighting for Profits

You cant get far in Economics 101 before the centrality of competition in this economic system becomes blindingly clear – and engine oil marketing in the U.S. comes reasonably close to a textbook case in how a competitive market should work on behalf of consumers.

As Dennis Florkowski of Chrysler told LubesnGreases last year, The price of oil in Europe is about six bucks a quart. In this country mineral oil can be purchased for one-sixth of that price; full synthetic oil can be found for half of it. Fran Lockwood, Valvolines vice president for research, noted in Octobers LubenGreases, Motor oil is a very high-tech product but often costs less than the same quantity of bottled water. – May 1998

Who Calls the Shots?

Remember: OEMs almost always vote as a bloc and have a lot of power in the ASTM consensus decision-making system. While a favorable vote by OEMs will not necessarily ensure a favorable outcome, an unfavorable vote always dooms a proposal.

By contrast, APIs Lubricants Committee serves as the lubricants industrys legislature. Its members take on the role of legislators and debate a proposal on its technical merit as well as its procedural implementation. Much debate concerns the actual flowchart of decision-making and the effect of chokepoints. Beneath the wordplay, this is the basic issue: who calls the shots, and when and where. – July 2001

Open a Window

Beginning in 2002 API clamped a tight lid on any details of its engine oil compliance and enforcement program, not even acknowledging how many enforcement actions it undertook. By contrast, in 1999 API reported that it canceled one license for high cold-crank results and low additive treat rate, and had undertaken initial action against three other licensees.

The only window into APIs recent enforcement actions was opened, slightly, last year by LubesnGreases, which uncovered a flagrantly mislabeled gasoline engine oil product being sold in North Carolina and informed API. Four months later, that product was still on some shelves, but was finally yanked for good after LubesnGreases again drew attention to it. …

Should API abandon this important oversight role? Well, at the very least, its time for the shroud of secrecy to be lifted, and for the annual audit results and enforcement actions be laid open for all to see, in a timely manner. – February 2004

Why Isnt Oil Better?

The American economic system responds to incentives. But Ford fuels and lubes supervisor Pete Misangyi noted, The real problem is that there are no natural incentives in the oil industry to drive up quality… He added with a frown, Our experience with the oil industry is completely different from our experience with all other parts suppliers, who come to us constantly with ideas and suggestions for quality upgrades.

GMs Mike McMillan added, The current system discourages incentives for quality upgrades. We have only a single specification now. Why should any oil company take that extra step to create a product that is significantly above the minimum spec without any way to identify it and get paid additional for it?

Staff engineer Bob Olree of General Motors noted that, as a member of an SAE task force exploring the need for a new engine oil category early in 1997, he brought up the issue of a two-tier performance system for oil. However, the oil companies rejected the idea of a higher quality tier right away. They blew it out of the water immediately. I was shocked. – July 1998

Last Stand for Synthetics

A definition of synthetic was another open issue. The Society of Automotive Engineers June 1996 revision to J-357 (Physical and Chemical Properties of Engine Oils) removed the word synthetic entirely from the description of base stock, which is now defined solely in terms of process – distillation, solvent refined, hydrogen processing, oligomerization, esterification and recycling and rerefining.

API in turn removed both mineral and synthetic from its definition of base oil. SAE also invited API to define synthetic for marketing purposes; APIs Lubricants Committee declined.

For engine oil, the word synthetic now disappears from the industrys technical literature. Its use and definition are left to individual firms. – July 1996

Note: Synthetic engine oils, once the domain of polyalphaolefins, today are largely made with less-expensive Group III mineral base oils.

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