Sounds like "Politicians buying your vote." How will these oils "help" my engine or be better? On Friday the American Petroleum Institute's Lubricants Committee met in telephone conference to discuss the results of its ballot on how and when to launch the new GF-4 and SM passenger car engine oils. The ballot, which was issued Feb. 24 and closed April 9, included two items relating to licensing of the new GF-4 engine oil specification, and 12 more items relating to its companion API Service Category upgrade, SM. The items regarding the ILSAC GF-4 engine oil specification, issued by automakers earlier this year, led off the balloting and received unanimous approval. First, it was agreed, engine oils meeting GF-4 will be licensed to show API's trademarked "starburst" logo beginning July 31, and GF-4's planned life is through July 2009. Second, the final date for licensing GF-3 quality oils will be April 30, 2005. Few of the ballot items relating to the API SM category were so crystalline, and the group was unable to resolve critical issues such as the category's final definition and when to begin licensing these new oils. Every committee member -- 10 oil companies and three chemical additive companies -- had completed each item in the formal letter ballot, and a representative of each was present for the nearly two-hour telephone conference, as were representatives of ILSAC (the lubricants committee of the U.S. and Japanese auto industry). API's ballots offer four voting options: approve, approve with comments, disapprove and abstain. A two-thirds majority of votes is necessary for an item to pass, so long as more than half of the voting members have submitted a ballot. Each "approve with comments" must be discussed, and to further foster compromise, disapprovals on passing items are also discussed, with the hope of persuading the dissenter to reconsider and change its vote. Four of the SM items were approved by the ballot. First, the GF-4 performance standard for fuel efficiency was adopted as the basis for allowing SM oil marketers to display the words "Energy Conserving" in the lower part of the API "donut" logo. Second, a minimum phosphorus level for SM oils was adopted; and third, this floor was set at 0.06 percent mass. "There was very little data presented to support the need for 0.06 percent," commented Infineum on its ballot. "However, in accepting GF-4 with a minimum phosphorus limit the industry has set a precedent, and the same criterion should apply to SM ILSAC grades," it said, voting to approve. Fourth, oils meeting the GF-4 standard can be licensed as GF-3 and API SL, effective April 15. The ballot originally included permitting SM products to be licensed as SL, too; this proposal was removed because SM has not yet been finally defined. With this approval, API formally has declared GF-4 as backward compatible with its predecessors. All approved balloted items became effective on April 12, except where an alternative date was indicated. Four controversial ballot items bit the dust -- all related to a proposal that would have redrawn the API "donut" logo and/or allowed licensees to label their products as emissions system compatible -- and were not further discussed. That left four crucial ballot items for further consideration: the definition and description of API SM, and the first dates that licensees will be able to display "API SM" in the top of the donut and "Energy Conserving" in the bottom. Earlier API Service Categories had first-licensing dates that ranged from a minimum of nine months to a maximum of 12 months following their final approval. Everyone has acknowledged that the interval from category approval to first licensing of SM oils and their Energy Conserving versions will be shorter than historical patterns. The ballot's proposed date of July 31 was not approved. As an alternative, suggestions were made to consider first licensing based on the approval date; specifically, from four to six months after approval. This issue will be considered at a committee meeting in Cincinnati on May 4. A new ballot will be issued near the end of April, and the process requires a full month for voting. So the first licensible date for SM, under the most favorable conditions, would be the end of September -- with a later date possible. SM's Sticking Points Conceptually, defining and describing SM boiled down to a debate over equivalency vs. flexibility. Auto manufacturers have insisted strongly that, for viscosity grades covered by their own GF-4 specification (0W-20, 0W-30, 5W-20, 5W-30 and 10W-30), the new SM category must be equivalent except for fuel efficiency, a pattern that has been followed in all previous categories. The flexibility concept, on the other hand, has been promoted just as strongly by many oil companies, particularly those with international operations, who have argued they need formulating flexibility to meet differing resource constraints worldwide, especially in base oils. A peripheral technical item involved the Sequence IIIG-A engine test, which measures low-temperature pumpability and is required for all ILSAC GF-4 grades. Numerous committee members opposed the idea of requiring IIIG-A tests for additional SM viscosity grades beyond the five covered by ILSAC. Such a move would lead to unnecessary testing costs, it was thought, since formulators do not have recourse yet to "read-across" guidelines for this new test. Although expanded "read-across" guidelines are being balloted by ASTM, the process is not complete. This technical issue was left unresolved. The levels of phosphorus and sulfur, however, remain the core of the equivalency/flexibility debate. After much discussion, a number of oil companies backed off their "flexibility" positions, and the committee voted 12 to 1 in favor of equivalency, settling on a maximum phosphorus level of 0.08 percent mass. They also set sulfur limits to match GF-4's (0.05 percent mass for 0W-20, 0W-30, 5W-20 and 5W-30 oils, and 0.07 percent for 10W-30s). So all GF-4 grades and their five corresponding SM grades will have identical requirements, except for fuel economy improvement. Shell alone, with 40 percent of the U.S. engine oil market and a large international presence, voted against the motion. There are no phosphorus or sulfur limits for non-ILSAC multigrades or monogrades. API staff was instructed to complete a new SM category description reflecting the decisions made (except for timing) and send it out quickly for comment, with a response sought by the end of this week. It is to be followed immediately by another written ballot. The Lubricant Committee's unprecedented finish-line sprint, in striking contrast to more than a year of plodding, reflects the heat it is feeling to get this category concluded so that oil marketers can finish testing, make final label adjustments and get their oils to market. Valvoline's Fran Lockwood chaired the teleconference. The ballot response form with comments was 24 crowded pages. Valvoline's Thom Smith summarized the ballot status and outlined options in a document that came to committee members early on the day of the meeting. His document was considered instrumental in bringing the discussion into focus, and its just-in-time arrival demonstrated the value of electronic communications in moving a professional group past seemingly unbridgeable positions.