Transport Advisor's Fuel Filter Update - 10 August 2020

NFU Scotland is continuing to push for change to address fuel filter blocking problems affecting Scottish agriculture according to Jamie Smart, Transport Advisor.

In his latest blog, he reflects on the filter blocking issues of last year, the creation of the BSI filter Taskforce, the steps being taken to change fuel specification and standards, and measures members can take now to reduce their risk of possible filter problems. He writes:

Last harvest, reports began to emerge of farm vehicles suffering from issues with their fuel filters blocking.  NFU Scotland began to investigate. We spoke to our NFU counterparts to learn similar patterns were emerging in parts of England. Member reports, which were focused on regions stretching from the Scottish Borders to the north of Dundee, increased as the weather cooled and peaked in November and December.   

Over a few weeks, we received reports of hundreds of vehicles which had suffered fuel issues; sometimes a fuel filter blocking in as little as 10 minutes. 

NFU Scotland and NFU paid for independent tests on problematic fuel. However, all results came back showing that the fuel was “within specification”, despite causing problems. In November 2019, Petroineos called a meeting of suppliers, dealers, fuel industry representatives and NFU Scotland. At this meeting it was accepted that there was an issue, but everyone was at a loss as to what precisely was causing it – the fuel being tested conformed with industry standards.

Initially, we started to ask if the problems were related to an increase in the percentage of biofuel being included in the fuel. After all, farmers were not doing anything differently from the previous year, yet some farmers were having significant and persistent filter blocking problems.  

One clear change had been the amount of biofuel which had been added to diesel in response to emissions legislation. 

However, as investigations continued, it became apparent that the whole story was much more complicated than we had first thought.

It soon became clear that tracking problematic fuel in the supply chain was a key problem.  The supply chain is extremely complicated. Orders of fuel from the same supplier can be sourced from several different producers and blenders, as well as from several storage facilities. The base mineral fuel can come from Petroineos, other refiners in the UK, or can be imported from anywhere in the world.  Further, biofuel can be local or imported, and can be made from various plant materials, recycled cooking oils or from processed animal tallow. Finally, biofuel can be mixed with the base mineral fuel in different ways and this can impact the properties of the fuel differently.

In all this uncertainty, one thing question began to take hold - were the specifications and standards fit for purpose? 

We lobbied both UK and Scottish Governments at the highest level, sadly with only limited success. Scottish Government were sympathetic but had little sway over this issue as fuel supply and standards are reserved to Westminster. 

UK Government were not willing and/or able to reduce the biofuel inclusion rate as this is set out by EU regulations and would be counter to the Government’s climate change policy. In simple terms, the UK Government’s position on this matter is that they have set the direction of travel and it is up to the UK fuel supply chain to work out how to get there.

We learned that standards for fuel in the UK are set by the British Standards Institution (BSI) and more specifically by a committee which administers liquid fuels. 

After a lot of lobbying, NFU Scotland and NFU were invited to London to speak to the committee. We were able to show evidence of the issues and pushed for the committee to investigate this. As a result of this work, a specific Taskforce was set up and both NFU Scotland and NFU were invited onto it to represent farmers, crofters, and growers. 

The Taskforce only met once before the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown. However, there have been numerous virtual meetings over the last few months. Holding face-to-face meetings would have been preferable, particularly when the subject area is so complex and in an entirely new industry to us.  However, it has been important to maintain as much momentum on this issue as possible. 

Whether we like it or not it is likely that bio-fuel inclusion will continue and is likely to increase over the next few years. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Biofuel inclusion helps our industry meet its carbon reduction targets, provides a market for waste and supports the development of a circular economy.

What we must ensure is that the fuel we are supplied with is fit for purpose and farmers and crofters can feel confident in the fuel they purchase.

With all of this in mind, the BSI Taskforce have already identified a potential issue with some base fuel and put in place measures to stop this entering the supply chain. Further changes to tighten up on the standards covering gas oil are also being brought forward. 

In addition, a sampling and testing protocol is near completion. This means that in the event of any issues this winter we can be ready to gather further evidence of what is causing filter blocking problems, and where exactly the fuel is coming from. NFU Scotland and NFU will continue to put pressure on this Taskforce to ensure the standards UK fuel industry set will protect us from fuel which is not fit for purpose.

In the meantime, there are also some things we can do to help ourselves:

  • Try not to store fuel for too long, maximum of 6 months is recommended. 
  • Keep your storage tank under cover if possible, this minimises the extremes of temperature and helps to prevent dampness inside the tank. 
  • Order the correct grade of gasoil depending on the time of year, your supplier will be able to tell you when they begin supplying winter and summer grade fuel. 
  • If possible, fit a filter between your storage tank and the supply nozzle as these can help catch any large particles and dampness before they enter the tractor tank. 
  • And finally, if you do encounter a problem which you suspect may be caused by contaminated fuel, contact your NFU Scotland Regional Manager for advice.

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