Clean Heat, Clean Air in Westchester County, New York

New York City may not be the place that comes to mind when you think of clean air, but NYC has done tremendous work in improving air quality – and now our neighbors in upstate Westchester County are following suit.

Seeing the positive health impacts from the phase-out of highly polluting heating oil in NYC, the Westchester County Legislature yesterday approved a resolution to phase out No. 6 and No. 4 oil in their buildings over time – No. 6 heating oil by 2018, and No. 4 oil by 2020.

These oils emit fine particular matter (PM2.5) and harmful chemicals like sulfur dioxide. When burned, they can become lodged in the lungs and worsen respiratory and cardiovascular issues. There were only a few hundred such buildings in Westchester county – compared to thousands in NYC – but that was still too many for Westchester officials to rest on their laurels. The county legislature went to work cleaning their air, and that work is paying off.

Community collaboration

County Legislator Catherine Parker has led the charge for years, and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has worked with her along the way. In a collaborative effort, EDF worked with Parker and the legislature to take lessons learned from NYC and adapt regulatory measures to Westchester.

Since 2011, when EDF and a coalition of organizations and local leaders worked together to phase out dirty heating oil NYC, we’ve been actively working to share our lessons from this experience. EDF believes the work in NYC can serve as an example to cities, counties, and states nationwide. Though NYC went a step beyond the regulation and created the NYC Clean Heat program to help buildings make the switch to cleaner fuels, one of the reasons the program was successful is due to the foundation provided by the city’s regulation.

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Part of the success in Westchester is due to cooperation across the aisle, a welcomed sight these days, with co-sponsor Francis Corcoran, a Republican. By phasing out heating oil, Westchester is taking a significant step toward cleaner air for residents throughout the county. EDF was pleased to submit testimony multiple times in support of the bill, speaking to the improvements in air quality and public health we have seen in NYC.

How Westchester may benefit

According to the New York Community Air Survey’s (NYCCAS) recent report, the results of eliminating No. 6 and No. 4 oil in NYC have been impressive.

  • Wintertime averages of sulfur dioxide (SO2) have declined 68 percent
  • Annual average nitrogen oxide (NO) levels declined 24 percent
  • Annual average nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels declined 21 percent
  • Annual average fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels declined 16 percent

The decline in sulfur dioxide, in particular, is due in large part to the heating oil regulations and work of the NYC Clean Heat program. Sulfur is linked directly to heating oil pollution, so getting rid of the most polluting heating oils has resulted in a tremendous reduction in sulfur pollution. According to the report: “Across the pollutants evaluated in this report, sulfur dioxide has shown the greatest decline, owing to State and Local efforts to phase out high sulfur heating oils through elimination of Nos. 6 and 4 oils, and reducing the allowable sulfur content of No. 2 heating oil.”

As with most clean energy solutions, this one alone will not solve all air pollution problems. But these efforts have paid huge dividends in NYC. And now Westchester residents will soon reap the benefits of some very hard work and smart decisions by their local elected officials.

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  1. Posted June 22, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Hi, thanks for sharing. Does this phase out apply only to transportation uses of fuel oil, or also commercial and residential uses, such as space heating?

  2. Abbey Brown
    Posted June 23, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Hi John,

    Thank you for your interest in this issue. The resolution applies to residential and commercial buildings only, not transportation. Phasing out No. 6 and No. 4 oil used for heating in buildings is a huge first step, but it is certainly not the last.