The chances of drivers being pulled over on Tokyo’s main arteries will increase in upcoming months, but drunk drivers and speed demons will not be roadside enforcers’ main targets.

Special teams of Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectural police will be on the lookout for users of an illegal substance that is both an environmental hazard and a costly problem for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Tokyo officials recently unveiled measures to eliminate “illegal light oil,” which has been available on the market as diesel fuel for several years.

This inexpensive fuel is most commonly produced by mixing regular light oil with another related hydrocarbon fuel, usually grade A heavy oil or kerosene.

Grade A heavy oil is typically used in machines such as boilers but can be used in some large diesel engines. It is easily mixed with related fuels such as light oil.

Investigations by metropolitan government officials have found that these mixtures are being brewed by a number of illicit manufacturers within the metropolitan area, while imports from overseas are also suspected.

The illegal fuel, which is about 30 percent cheaper than officially sanctioned light fuel, throws a double punch at both the cash-strapped metropolitan government and Tokyo residents starved of fresh air.

The illegal brew is a significantly greater air pollutant than regular light fuel and is also causing tax losses estimated at billions of yen per annum.

With this in mind, the metropolitan government announced a plan to uncover the production and distribution routes of the oil within Tokyo, while also looking to join forces with neighboring prefectures to gauge the extent of its use.

According to statistics produced by the metropolitan government’s environment division, some 3.4 million kiloliters of light fuel were sold in Tokyo in 1999. Of that total, it is believed that between 5 percent and 10 percent was illegal.

According to Akira Tanaka of the metropolitan government’s taxation bureau, the opening up of the fuel market four years ago and the tax levied on light gas have both contributed to the increasingly common use of the illicit fuel.

“A variety of negative aspects started to creep in (after the freeing up of the market). Many related businesses began to realize they could make money by dodging the tax levied on regular light fuel (by mixing it with other nontaxable fuels),” Tanaka said.

Assuming that 5 percent of the light fuel sold in 1999 was illegal, the loss of the 32.1 yen per liter tax imposed on regular fuel would have cost the metropolitan government over 5 billion yen.

Nationwide, light oil sales for 1999 amounted to some 42 million kiloliters, which would have resulted in losses 10 times the Tokyo figure.

The upcoming crackdown is not the first. In 1998, manufacturers and distributors of illegal gas oil were uncovered in Nagano, Tochigi and Aichi prefectures, where tax evasion reportedly totaled around 650 million yen.

One Ibaraki Prefecture distributor allegedly sold around 1,500 kiloliters of the alternative light oil that year, dodging around 50 million yen in taxes.

Neither are inspections in Tokyo uncommon, according to Tanaka, though he acknowledged they are on a much smaller scale. Such investigations reportedly occur several times a year.

Yasuo Fukushima of the metropolitan government’s automotive pollution countermeasures office said another equally important reason for tackling the issue is the significantly greater impact the inferior quality fuel has on the environment.

Tests undertaken by a Tokyo research laboratory showed that a half-half mix of grade A heavy oil and regulation light oil used in an 8-ton truck results in a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in harmful exhaust emissions such as nitrogen oxide and particulate matter, Fukushima said.

Key to the metropolitan government’s upcoming strategies to combat the fuel’s distribution is the planned surprise checks of oil tanks/reservoirs and storage facilities, especially those holding grade A heavy oil.

Additionally, investigations will be made at the construction sites of some 2,000 public works projects.

Sites to be checked have already been earmarked through previous secret investigations, Tanaka said.

On-the-spot roadside checks of diesel vehicles, particularly freight trucks, will be made at 30 places on trunk routes connecting Tokyo and neighboring prefectures, Tanaka said.

The uncovering of on-the-road users will ultimately lead to the identification of other distributors and manufacturers of the illegal oil, he added.

It is possible that some gasoline stands are feeding drivers the mixed oil, he said.

However, Tanaka stressed that the bulk of the sales are likely to be carried out door-to-door at businesses that by their very nature use large quantities of light oil.

Likely targets are companies where the greatest expenditure is for fuel, Tanaka said, listing as examples “truck and freight companies, construction companies . . . companies that use such a huge quantity of fuel that even if it’s offered to them 10 yen cheaper (than the regular fuel), they’ll buy it.”

One liter of illegal oil can cost as little as 55 yen per liter, or around 20 yen cheaper than its legal counterpart.

Toshio Fujita, an expert on air pollution and head of a Tokyo nongovernmental organization dealing with environmental issues, said the government’s strategies were welcomed and “desperately needed.”

While government figures suggest the number of trucks running on Tokyo’s roads is actually falling, the amount of harmful fumes in the air has been increasing, he said.

“This probably can be explained by the increased use of such illegal light fuel,” he said.

One Tokyo truck driver expressed agitation at the prospect of roadside checks, saying that such “police state” measures would waste the time of the majority who use officially sanctioned fuel.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.