You see these hordes with vests labeled "ASBU". Lurking in squad like numbers by the new Petron forecourt on EDSA between Shaw and Guadalupe, Makati bound, but more often at the boundary of Makati and Pasig on C-5, they are ready to pounce on a long list of the usual suspects. Practiced in profiling, they are quick to flag down any or all. Mongrel AUVs. Tatty Subic or Port Irene imported SUVs, AUVs, Isuzu Elf, any truck with more than 4-wheels, L 300s, Tamaraws, and Highlanders. The victims are pulled over and a grimy smoke tester probe is inserted in the exhaust pipe. One wonders how many of them pass? The hell do they care that they cause another traffic jam during the 10am-3pm coding window.

No pass, all fail

We wonder how any victim can pass. At least back in school, everyone knew that 75% is the passing grade. But what is the numerical standard or unit of measure which constitute what is smoke belching and what isn't? If there is, it is not easily available in the public domain. So what are those smoke testers for? What are their threshold numbers? More importantly, are all testing procedures done like what most ASBU testers do? Almost to a man, these testers rev the engine till kingdom come and pump the accelerator. Mechanics claim that with such a procedure even new engines will fail the test. For added measure, these ASBU testers even pump the pedal as many times until it smokes, justifying the suspicion of motorist and mechanics alike. The testers reckless revving, that leads to engine bearing failure, does not even duplicate real world driving with a heavy load, the situation when almost all diesel vehicles smoke. It is precisely because the engine is not heavily loaded in neutral that it will not smoke, which is why these testers resort to pumping the gas pedal. Its a loaded dice that no poor motorist can ever win. Sadly, this issue is not headline grabbing enough for civil rights lawyers to arm motorists with a legal recourse.

The silence of the law

What is the law doing about it? Is there really a known national standard that defines smoke belching, unless perhaps the emissions testing centers that crowd around LTO offices are keeping it a State secret. How can one obey the law when no one seems to know?

Abuse of autonomy

To add further to this tragedy is the 1986 empowerment of local government town councils that have started to behave and legislate like autonomous republics. This new power allowed town councils to impose anti smoke belching ordinances on national roads, producing income from pollution fines fleeced from the helpless motorist victim. Ask them the number or the pollution index and you meet a blank wall. Imagine a highway journey, driving in fear of an ASBU shake down at every town, a legal form of highway robbery.

No can pass

Ultimately, not too many new engines will pass the roadside ASBUs fail sure techniques. This is because we are one of the last few markets in East Asia that sticks to high sulfur diesel. Make no mistake, the local oil refiners are willing to produce clean diesel - Euro III or Euro IV levels if need be. They are willing to invest in upgrading our refineries even if cheaper imported Singapore refined low sulfur diesel is available in an instant. Why? Because China, the world's last supplier of high sulfur cheap crude is already winding down this crude export as its expanding Power sector uses more bunker fuel in lieu of coal. This means China is rejigging their fractioning separation of "cracking" petroleum to produce more clean diesel and bunker fuel. No more dirty diesel, and thus no more dirty crude for refineries which can only produce dirty high sulfur diesel - which happen to be ours. Moreover, refineries that use high sulfur crude are obsolete, thus parts shortages loom and soon, extinction.

Embracing sulfur

Why do we stick to high sulfur fuel? Because of the powerful transport lobby whose fleets run on reconditioned pre-chamber design diesel engines. These engines need the high sulfur to cushion the valve seats. Unfortunately, the burning sulfur mix goes into the air and has, for close to 50 years, found a home in our lungs. Sure, these reconditioned engines do not clog or need frequent filter cleansing as modern diesels, but the particulate traps of the modern diesel engines are meant to trap the pollutants from getting into our lungs. Which further proves the dirt in our diesel. The transport lobby demand not only subsidized fuel but also impose this backward diesel formulation on the rest of the diesel consuming fleets of modern brand new Euro III compliant China-made buses and privately owned AUVs and SUVs.

Any hope?

The profit motive should be the best incentive to cleaner diesel. How about a low sulfur clean "super" diesel? Its good for modern engines, crdi and turbo alike, as the fuel is not only cleaner but thriftier too. Less oil changes and less filter cleansing for the engine. If the transport lobby are jealous of anyone else sharing their subsidy, then charge a higher price for clean super diesel. But like super, super premium, and biofuels, make this super or premium diesel widely available. Even if the oil companies have to import it from Singapore, at least, a good portion of the nation's diesel fleet can run on clean fuel and beat the ASBU system of legalized highway robbery. Who knows, even the tatty SUVs and tatty AUVs running on super diesel can finally clear those traffic causing ASBU choke points, legally clean and grease money free. Perhaps the profits will now accrue to the oil companies rather than those enterprising local government ASBUs. For Three Pesos per liter more, we hope Petron's Turbo Diesel and Shell's V-Power can put an end to these racketeering ASBUs.

The future?

We hope this triggers a race between the oil companies and the government; a race as to who beats who to get the clean diesel to the forecourts or the government finally exposing the numerical threshold for smoke belching. Judging by past record, the odds should favor the oil industry.