By on September 8, 2021

Prior to 1970, buying leaded gasoline in the United States was as normal as picking up a carton of eggs or relaxing in your asbestos-laden home. After 1970, the U.S. Congress had officially adopted the Clean Air Act created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the gradual phasing out of leaded fuel began. While many bemoaned the lackluster performance of the malaise-era automobiles that followed, the rules continued to inform how vehicle manufacturers operated on a global scale.

But leaded gasoline hung in there for longer than you might assume. Most Western nations (including the United States) didn’t totally phase out leaded gasoline intended for passenger vehicles until the 1990s. Central Asia took even longer and parts of the Middle East and Africa continued to offer lead additives well into the 2000s. However, the United Nations Environment Program announced that leaded gasoline had officially become extinct over the summer, with Algeria being the final country to deplete its now-banned supply. 

In 2002, the United Nations organized a coalition of African governments and oil companies to stop using the fuel citing that modern engines don’t benefit from it in the same manner as older vehicles had. Leaded gas is pretty much a death sentence for a catalytic converter. But the primary push came by way of addressing the health risks associated with burning leaded fuel. The U.N. was forced to play a long game but appears to have been successful in its objective. With the possible exception of North Korea, it’s now assumed that leaded gasoline has been more or less abolished around the world.

At this point in the article, you’re probably wondering why you should care that some North African country with a shoddy human-rights record finally banned the least popular fuel blend.

Well, the history of leaded gasoline does offer us a potential timeline for the next regulatory bonanza. It took the world roughly 50 years to finally nullify lead in fuel, even after there was little practical reason to keep it around. But even then, there remain exceptions in agricultural equipment, racing vehicles, marine engines, and some aircraft. The next big shift will be electrification, which is encouraging similar governmental bans and will require substantially more work to accomplish.

While the automotive sector seems happy swapping over to electric vehicles — as they require less manpower to build and allow the industry to mimic the behavior of cell-phone providers — there are major logistical issues that need to be addressed. Energy grids will need to be fortified to handle peak draw in the afternoons without incurring additional pollution if the environmental claims being made by EV advocates are to be taken seriously. We’re going to need to figure out ways of mining materials necessary for battery production without incurring more pollution or allowing certain nations (specifically China) to monopolize the market. Robust charging infrastructures need to be established and the relevant technologies need to be improved so EVs can be truly comparable to combustion vehicles.

Developed countries are already working on the above as governing bodies attempt to predict which year they can officially ban internal combustion vehicles. But if the history of leaded gasoline has taught us anything, it’s that the global timeline could be a lot longer than anyone realizes. Despite the brunt of the planet’s population possessing reliable access to electricity, there are some noteworthy exceptions in the developing world.

Only about 45 percent of Hattians have access to electricity. Meanwhile, African countries like Chad, Niger, the Congo, Liberia, Somalia, and Rwanda can only dream of such widespread electrification. The good news is that all of those nations’ power availability are trending upwards. But there’s no assurance that will always be the case. War-torn Libya has seen its access to electricity plummet over the last two decades and analysts are worried the same could soon be true in Afghanistan unless China’s Belt and Road Initiative comes to the region.

The above isn’t a plea to abandon electrification programs, just a statement of fact that governments and industry leaders often seem to ignore. Recent strides in battery technology really do make it seem as though EVs will become the future of transportation whether or not it’s to your tastes. However, the quoted timelines often seem short-sighted and completely ignore places like Africa where the vast majority of vehicles are secondhand and need to be able to run on gasoline or diesel to effectively traverse the countryside.

But spurring electrification that isn’t even the most immediate automotive issue for the region. Having effectively ended the use of leaded fuel in Africa, the U.N. would now like to see it start working on lessening the amount of sulfur present in the continent’s diesel fuels. Considering how long it took for leaded gasoline to be removed from the picture (blame the pollical climate, technological gaps, tough financial situations), this could likewise take decades and genuinely leaves us wondering if it’s even possible to see EVs become Africa’s dominant mode of transportation in our lifetime.

[Image: Abd Pini Bidin/Shutterstock]

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30 Comments on “The End of Leaded Gasoline, Lessons to Remember...”


  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    During my time living in Africa, mainly west and central, any cars we brought over, we had to have the catalytic convertors removed while they were in shipping. We would find it in a box in the trunk. If you wanted to bring the car back with you (many people sold their cars locally), before it was allowed to leave the boat at Baltimore, Newark, Wilmington, etc., it had to be reattached. All due to leaded gas. And we had to stare at a Check Engine light and status message every time we drove. (And gas was very expensive – my SUV minus catalytic convertor got me maybe 13 mpg in mixed driving and gas was well over $8/gallon after doing the exchange rates and metric conversions.)

    Power issues. During the rainy season, not too bad. Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and a few other countries in the region get a lot of power from dams. During the dry season, the lakes can run low and there were power cuts. During severe storms (and the monsoon rains were epic), power outages were common as well. The massive diesel generator not too far from my bedroom window that fired up on the middle of the night and could wake the dead was a reminder that power was a bit iffy there.

    I can’t speak for how things are in 2021 in that part of the world. I understand that there has been a lot of foreign investment, especially by the Chinese and Middle Eastern countries, and hopefully that included stable power grids and clean water. But so much African travel outside of South Africa tends to stay inside the cities and general region. The road infrastructure outside of the cities is too hit and miss. Electric vehicles would make sense in that environment especially if the power supply is stable.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Back in the mid 70s you could drain the platinum coated pellets out of GM converters and sell them (this was before “honeycomb” cats). GM even offered a service replacement part for the plug as you typically damaged the original prying it out.

    There were also tools to expand the fuel tank inlet restrictor a small amount to accommodate the leaded dispenser. Did a great job, you couldn’t even tell it was modified without measuring. It came with a decal for the gas filler door “this vehicle modified for export usage”.

  • avatar
    tane94

    GM CEO Ed Cole never got the credit he deserved for pushing adoption of unleaded fuel beginning with the 1975 model year.

  • avatar
    FerrariLaFerrariFace

    ” it’s now assumed that leaded gasoline has been more or less abolished around the world.”

    The most significant exception is its use in small aircraft.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Gas vehicle usage on the scale that it happens in the world’s least developed places isn’t going to have a major climate impact. Only a few people in those places drive and their per capita carbon emissions are very, very low.

    If those places become substantially more developed, they’ll also be able to build the infrastructure for gasless cars.

    Meanwhile, lead gas was evil stuff with horrendous public health impact, and every government that kept it around once the bulk of available supply was unleaded should be considered sociopathic. We should be getting it out of airplanes ASAP too.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Quite a straw man article here.

    Just as Algeria’s discontinued use of leaded fuel is irrelevant, so is the EV take rate in Somalia.

    Most of the de-leading race was won in about 10 years. The last 40 years was just laggards joining the party.

    And similarly, Algeria didn’t get rid of lead for altruistic reasons but economic ones; it just wasn’t available any longer. EV adoption will continue to be an unholy brew of economics and pressure politics, with little tie to the environment.

    • 0 avatar
      bullnuke

      A straw man article indeed. This was apparently written to enter another article concerning the “rise of electrification in automobiles” and concerns over enabling this rise worldwide, even in un/underdeveloped countries. While leaded land-vehicle motor fuel has apparently finally disappeared, the dreaded R-12 Freon is still available in the third world in fairly large quantities.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        mask mandates, EV mandates, rinse, repeat…

      • 0 avatar
        indi500fan

        I need some third worlder to send me some cheap R-22 for my home AC.

        • 0 avatar
          slavuta

          I just got the phone of one in America. I am not going to change the unit because I need a pound of R22

        • 0 avatar
          ToolGuy

          “R-22 for my home AC”

          Dumb question: If I order 30 pounds here for $67.36 with free shipping, do I go to prison?

          https://www.qenazm.com/brand-new-r22-sealed-full-r-22-refrigerant-30-lb-cylinder-of-r-22-fast-shipping

          [Website lists their location as California, which is potentially confusing on multiple levels.]

          Five years from now if my circa-2003 Carrier gas pack (4.4 pound fill) still lives, I may have more dumb questions regarding R-427A. (Hopefully I’ll be kicked out of the neighborhood before then.)

          • 0 avatar
            slavuta

            No, you don’t go to prison

            https://airemechanical.com/is-r22-illegal/

          • 0 avatar
            SCE to AUX

            My 1986 R-22 home A/C is still working. It hasn’t been touched in the 20 years I’ve owned the house. I did replace the furnace in 2009.

            Probably time to upgrade to save on electric, but I hate to replace stuff that is still functional.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I just had to replace an R-22 system from 2007 because… it suddenly developed a hole big enough that a refill of refrigerant escaped in a day (compressor looked fine). Run yours as long as you can, some of the quotes I got were loony.

          • 0 avatar
            ToolGuy

            @28,

            The Reptilians will burn you every time on a replacement unit. (Try the Greys.)

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_alleged_extraterrestrial_beings

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Leaded gas continues to be used in small aircraft to best of my knowledge.

  • avatar
    TR4

    The amount of aviation gasoline refined in U.S.A. is less than 1% of motor gasoline:

    https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/PET_PNP_REFP2_DC_NUS_MBBL_A.htm

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Originally all gasoline was unleaded the lead was added when engines became high combustion and higher horsepower. The original Model T ran fine without lead.

  • avatar

    Unlike unleading gasoline adoption of EVs will bring the end of the world as we know it. Because EV do not have MT, run silently and were not invented by Germans.

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      Actually the father of American petroleum was… a russian

      https://cen.acs.org/people/profiles/Vladimir-Ipatieff-catalysis-superhero-ve/97/i19

      “oil companies quickly commercialized Ipatieff’s process, building more than 100 refinery units from 1935 to 1945 to run this fuel-making chemistry. Nearly 10% of today’s refineries continue to make gasoline in this way”

      • 0 avatar
        Peter Gazis

        1935? Your about 6 decades too late.
        John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil co. In 1870. The company eventually dominated every aspect of the Oil industry: Drilling, Refining, Transportation and retail sales. Until being broken up in 1911.

      • 0 avatar
        Peter Gazis

        1935? Your about 6 decades too late.
        John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil co. In 1870. The company eventually dominated every aspect of the Oil industry: Drilling, Refining, Transportation and retail sales. Until being broken up in 1911.

  • avatar
    96redse5sp

    You know what they DO have plenty of in Haiti, Chad, Niger, the Congo, Liberia, Somalia, and Rwanda? Sunlight. They have an abundance of sunlight. And you know what they DON’T have in those countries? A burgeoning middle class that owns their own automobiles.

    Most of those in the countries above wealthy enough to own their own cars would be wealthy enough to install solar powered chargers. They’ll be OK. For the remaining car owners, gasoline will be available for the foreseeable future. We may even have an over abundance of the stuff…

  • avatar
    96redse5sp

    You know what they DO have plenty of in Haiti, Chad, Niger, the Congo, Liberia, Somalia, and Rwanda? Sunlight. They have an abundance of sunlight. And you know what they DON’T have in those countries? A burgeoning middle class that owns their own automobiles.

    Most of those in the countries above wealthy enough to own their own cars would be wealthy enough to install solar powered chargers. They’ll be OK. For the remaining car owners, gasoline will be available for the foreseeable future. We may even have an over abundance of the stuff…

  • avatar
    eprolithus

    “only 45% of Haitians have access to electricity”… How many Haitians have access to petrol-powered cars? I’d guess it’s less than 45%!

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    There is not a shortage of oil but there will be a shortage of refined products like gasoline and diesel as more and more countries mandate the adoption of non-fossil fuel in vehicles and electrical generation. Additionally there has not been a major oil refinery built in the USA since the mid 70s and more and more refineries have been taken off line. It will take years before EVs replace ICE but eventually it will happen.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    “Libya has seen its access to electricity plummet over the last two decades”

    hmmm. Libya was the richest African country with the highest standard of living before US/France destroying it.

    “why you should care that some North African country [Algeria]”

    -Because they ship great dates to US. I buy it at Home Goods.
    -Because their national soccer team is a kick-a$$
    -Because when enough of them live in France, they will just unite the two places

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