A Defining Moment For Synthetics, by Katherine Bui, Lubricants World, 1999

Back in 1999, Castrol and Mobil 1 fought over what could be advertised as “Synthetic.” The result had far-reaching effects on the automotive lubrication industry across the world. I was recently able to pull up the original article on a few other AMSOIL dealers’ websites and figured I’d add it here as well for convenience.

Part 1

While the field is not wide open, a new ruling confirms that the definition of “synthetic” is still largely in the hands of marketers.

Synthetic. The word has become almost a proscription in the industry, especially among scientific and technical organizations, such as the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the American Petroleum Institute (API).

Ask a marketer of motor oil products formulated with hydroprocessed mineral oils, and you might get a definition that involves cost-efficiencies and consumer choices. Ask an engineer involved in manufacturing polyalphaolefins (PAOs) or esters, and composition might be the determining factor. Despite the intense debate over the origins of synthetics, an absolute definition has remained in limbo for many years, with much of the responsibility placed on base oil manufacturers and lubricant marketers.

It was only recently, in a decision by the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, that the first basic action and ruling in the United States set a strong precedence for a broader description in the marketing of synthetics. In this first installment of a two-part story, Lubricants World takes a look at the NAD’s ruling and explores the revived debate surrounding the definition of “synthetic.”

The Ruling
In a ruling released April 1999, the NAD addressed complaints filed by Mobil Oil Corp. regarding the truthfulness of Castrol North America Inc.’s claim that its Syntec® provides “superior engine protection” to all other motor oils, both synthetic and conventional, and that Syntec’s esters provide “unique molecular bonding.” Mobil charged that the advertisements inaccurately represented that the current formulation of Syntec is synthetic. The challenge was filed based on statements Castrol made in a series of television commercials, Web site publications, package labels, and brochures.

The NAD divided its decision to address three issues raised in the complaint. Is the reformulated Syntec synthetic motor oil? Has Castrol substantiated its superiority claims? Has Syntec been degraded?

The NAD determined that the evidence presented by the advertiser constitutes a reasonable basis for the claim that Castrol Syntec, as currently formulated, is a synthetic motor oil. NAD noted that Mobil markets hydroisomerized basestocks as synthetic in Europe and elsewhere. NAD noted that the action taken by the SAE to delete any reference to “synthetic” in its description of basestocks in section J354 and API’s consequent removal of any mention of “synthetic” in API1509 were decisions by the industry not to restrict use of the term “synthetic” to the definition now proffered by Mobil. Further, the SAE Automotive Lubricants Reference Book, an extensively peer-reviewed publication, states base oils made through the processes used to create Shell’s hydroisomerized basestock, severe cracking, and reforming processes may be marketed as “synthetic.”

Despite its prior ruling, the NAD advised that Syntec could not advertise a superior protection claim.

The NAD determined that though Mobil presented clear evidence that Castrol has made a major change to Syntec’s formulation, it was not sufficient to demonstrate that Syntec has been “degraded.”

Industry Reaction
In a statement to Lubricants World, Castrol’s legal counsel said, “The NAD’s decision was clearly correct. In accepting Castrol’s position on the appropriate definition of synthetic basestock and concluding that Castrol Syntec is a fully synthetic oil, the NAD accepted the overwhelming evidence Castrol presented, which included the opinions of leading scientists . . .and statements from Shell, Exxon, and other industry sources. The NAD also relied on the SAE’s rejection of a restrictive definition of the type advanced by Mobil. In fact, although it had the right to do so, Mobil did not attempt to appeal the NADS’s decision.”

Mark Sztenderowicz, a senior research engineer from Chevron Products Co.’s Base Oil Technology Team, stated his company agreed with the NAD’s decision. “We feel strongly,” he said, “that ‘synthetic’ is a fairly broad term and a number of basestocks besides PAOs fit the description. To the extent that the NAD came to a similar conclusion and was unwilling to limit ‘synthetic’ to a narrow definition, we agree. We further agree with what we consider to be a commonsense interpretation that consumers perceive the word ‘synthetic’ to mean something man-made, but not made necessarily from a particular compound or component.”

Mobil’s Position
Mobil contended that Castrol misleads consumers that Syntec is a fully synthetic motor oil despite the fact that Syntec is no longer synthetic. The challenger alleged that after years of manufacturing Syntec with PAO, Castrol replaced the PAO, which had constituted nearly 70% of the volume of the product, with hydroprocessed mineral oil in approximately December 1997. As a result of an independent laboratory test conducted by Savant Inc., Mobil maintained that samples of Syntec purchased in June and December 1997 contained 93% and 80% PAO. Other samples of Syntec, one purchased in December 1997 and four purchased in 1998, contained no PAO, and instead contained 100% mineral oil.

Furthermore, Mobil alleged that Castrol degraded Syntec by substituting hydroprocessed mineral oil for PAO to the detriment of the consumer. Even though Syntec was able to meet the minimum industry standards, Mobil contended that in no way does it prove the current Syntec is as good as it was when it was made with PAO.

Castrol’s Position
Castrol defended its claim that Castrol Syntec is synthetic based on the nature of the basestocks used in the formulation (Shell’s hydroisomerized basestocks). This is substantiated by the opinions of chemistry experts; authorities from Shell and Exxon; the SAE’s Automotive Lubricants Reference Book; a paper by Dr. Martin Voltz, a Mobil scientist; and an independent motor oil expert. Castrol also contends that its data show the current formulation of Syntec provides more protection than the old formulation and is, in fact, superior to Mobil 1®, Mobil’s synthetic oil.

In response to Mobil’s contention that Castrol deceived its consumers by not informing them of the change in the formulation, the advertiser submitted a statement by Richard Kabel, a motor oil expert. Kabel asserted that motor oil manufacturers, including Mobil, regularly make changes in their formulations without disclosing these changes to consumers. He stated that the industry certification and licensing program is designed to provide motor oil manufacturers with the flexibility to modify their formulations as long as the oil continues to meet industry standards.

The Definition of “Synthetic”
The debate regarding the use of the word “synthetic” created a tumult in the early 1990s when a push by the lubricants industry urged the API and the SAE to set a standard or official definition for the material. The argument centered on the development of very high viscosity index (VHVI) base oils that some argued provided properties similar to PAOs but cost only half as much. VHVIs or hydroisomerized basestocks are created by chemically converting the molecules of a selected feedstock to a different set of molecules, predominantly through chemical rearrangement or decomposition of the structure of the feed molecules. PAOs are derived from a chemical process that combines small molecules to make larger complex molecules of a desired type.

SAE, unable to resolve the debate, stripped references to the word “synthetics” from its terminology books and guides (J357) in 1995 and 1996, respectively. The API eliminated references to “synthetic” from its Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (API1509).

Mobil’s Definition
In the complaint filed by Mobil against Castrol’s Syntec, the PAO manufacturer contended true synthetics had to be formulated from small molecules subject to a chemical reaction, not built from natural petroleum.

Mobil submitted testimony from Professor J.M. Perez, a lubrication and technology expert from Pennsylvania State University, who told the NAD that true synthetics require “the formation of chemical products from simple well-defined molecules by synthesis or chemical reaction.” Perez cited isomerization, reforming, hydrotreating, and hydrocracking as some of the many chemical and physical processing steps applied to petroleum to produce a variety of useful products, but said that they do not produce synthetic products. He argued that hydroisomerization does not create synthetic material because it does not create or build molecules, but merely rearranges the same molecules that were present in the original petroleum fraction.

Professor O.L. Chapman, an expert in synthetic chemistry from the University of California, also testified that synthetic materials are constructed from pure compounds that are themselves not natural and that the resulting synthetic material has well-defined properties. PAO and ester, he said, are built from pure small molecules that have already been subject to a chemical reaction, and are not built from natural petroleum.

Mobil also asserted that the definition of synthetic propounded by Castrol is contrary to the definition used by other motor oil manufacturers and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the EPA’s 40CFR435.11(x), “the term ‘synthetic’ material. . . means material produced by the reaction of a specific purified chemical feedstock, as opposed to the traditional base fluids such as diesel and mineral oil, which are derived from crude oil solely through physical separation processes.”

The challenger also noted that Exxon, on its Web site, stated that a synthetic lubricant is a “lubricating fluid made by chemically reacting materials of a specific chemical composition to produce a compound with planned and predictable properties. . . .” Similarly, Mobil contended Chevron, Lubrizol, Mobil, Valvoline, and Quaker State all disseminated definitions of synthetic that did not include hydroisomerized oil.

The challenger argued that Castrol does not even meet the definition of synthetic oil that it disseminates on its own Web site. Castrol’s definition reads, “synthetic lubricants are manufactured chemicals . . . created in the laboratory by combining molecules” and “a lubricant produced by synthesis rather than by extraction and refinement.” Mobil asserted that, in fact, Syntec meets Castrol’s own Web-posted definition of mineral oil: “oil that is manufactured from crude oil by a series of refinery processes.”

Despite the fact that the label does not contain the claim that Syntec is a fully synthetic motor oil, Mobil contended that Castrol’s television commercials, brochures, labels, Web sites have created an automatic association for consumers that any Syntec product is a synthetic oil. In response to Castrol’s assertions that SAE changed its definition of synthetics to include mineral oils, Mobil asserted that SAE’s legal administrator, Steven P. Daum, has stated, “SAE has neither issued an official definition of, nor adopted a Society position on, what does or does not constitute such materials. SAE does not render opinions on what products may be marketed or advertised as synthetic motor oil.”

Furthermore, Mobil contested Castrol’s claim that Section J357 of SAE’s “Physical and Chemical Properties of Engine Oils,” described the basestocks used in manufacturing motor oils, recognizes Shell’s hydroisomerized basestocks as synthetic. The challenger claimed the section is a general guide to engine oil properties and that the current version does not define or even use the word “synthetic.” Mobil also argued that Castrol’s assertion that SAE’s Automotive Lubricants Reference Book supports hydroisomerized oil as synthetic is misleading. Mobil contended the book expresses the views of the authors and not that of SAE.

Castrol’s Definition
Castrol distinguished “synthetic” from “conventional” oil in its definition. Conventional oils, according to Castrol, are taken from the ground, purified, and refined without reforming through chemical reactions. Castrol described synthetic oils as made with stocks in which the molecular structure of a substance, such as wax, has been broken apart and transformed through a chemical reaction to create a new molecule that is different from naturally occurring substances.

Castrol called Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman and Frank H.T. Rhodes, professor of chemistry at Cornell University, who defined synthetic material as “the product of an intended chemical reaction.” Hoffman also defined at least one major chemical transformation (reaction) in its manufacture of processing, but a simple “physical separation, purification, or transformation (e.g., freezing or boiling) does not constitute a synthesis.”

Sir John Meurig Thomas of the Royal Institute of Great Britain reached a similar conclusion, stating that although there is no net increase in the size of the molecule in hydroisomerization, this does not prevent the process from creating a synthetic substance. Furthermore, he noted the act of isomerizing a linear paraffin into a branched-chain paraffin makes the process of producing Shell’s hydroisomerized basestock as much of a synthesis as the buildup of larger hydrocarbons from smaller ones.

J.G Helpinstill, who works for Exxon in basestock and finished-product research and development, stated that it is appropriate to classify as synthetic materials that are not found in the earth’s naturally occurring resources in commercial quantities, but instead are made by substantive chemical modifications of other naturally occurring or physically recoverable substances.

In 1993, Castrol asserted SAE was asked to exclude hydroisomerized products from the definition of synthetic basestocks by defining synthesis as involving the buildup of larger molecules from smaller components. The SAE, according to Castrol, decided in 1995, as did the API, to revise its guidelines to eliminate any definition of synthetic. The advertiser contended Mobil’s challenge before the NAD is really an effort to reopen a debate previously lost in these industry organizations. Furthermore, Castrol contended the SAE’s Automotive Lubricants Reference Book states that base oils made through severe cracking and reforming processes may be marketed as synthetic.

Castrol also maintained that basestocks like shell’s hydroisomerized basestock are marketed as synthetic in 37 countries, including the United States, and that Mobil’s real interest is in protecting its market dominance. The advertiser argued that Mobil, through its alliance with British Petroleum, has also marketed hydroisomerized basestocks as synthetic in Europe and elsewhere.

In a private interview with Lubricants World, Castrol’s legal counsel from Paul Weiss said, “As the NAD recognized, the scientific and industry consensus view is that synthetic basestocks are manufactured through an intended chemical reaction in which the molecular structure of a substance has been transformed. Synthetic basestocks are used to produce engine oils that meet high performance specifications.” Furthermore, he contended the NAD’s decision confirmed that the use of judiciously chosen synthetic basestocks is essential to the formulation of a fully synthetic engine oil that meets the exacting performance standards consumers have come to expect from synthetic engine oils.

He said, “The NAD recognized, therefore, that both composition and performance are important characteristics of synthetic lubricants. Castrol requires that its Syntec full-synthetic engine oils meet those exacting performance specifications and surpass the performance of conventional products.”

Industry Reaction
In Lubricant World’s discussions with several lubricant companies, the case raised a diversity of opinions.

An industry expert from a major oil company prefers a description of synthetic used by the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE), which defines synthetics as man-made compounds, not naturally occurring, and that combining low-molecular-weight materials via chemical reaction into higher-molecular-weight structures makes these products. The spokesperson said, “In our opinion, that responsibility [of placing the accountability of defining synthetics in the hands of manufacturers or lubricant marketers] will yield an inconsistent application of the basestock, and inconsistencies in finished-product quality will result.”

He also argued that based on PAO synthetic products, the emphasis should be based on performance rather than composition. “This is not to imply,” he suggested, “that the only way to achieve enhanced performance is through the use of PAO. In Europe, for example, oil is formulated on various quality tiers, where the consumer is informed about what each tier will accomplish in his automobile (extended drains, high-RPM engines, etc.). The North American lubricant market has a long way to go to develop this type of market.”

Sztenderowicz, however, applies the definition in Webster’s Dictionary in the chemical context. The dictionary defines synthetic to mean, “of, relating to, or produced by chemical or biochemical synthesis, especially produced artificially,” with synthesis defined as “the production of substance by the union on chemical elements, groups, or simpler compounds or by the degradation of a complex compound.”

Chevron Products Co. manufactures a VHVI line of unconventional base oils (UCBOs) at its Richmond base oil plant. Based on these definitions, Sztenderowicz said, “Both Chevron PAOs and UCBOs fit this description.” He noted the definition clearly links synthetics to composition or origin, but not to a specific composition, origin, or manufacturing route. “We think that a basestock in which the molecules largely are altered in some way from those appearing in the raw materials might be classified as synthetic,” Sztenderowicz explained. “Performance is an issue separate from whether or not the base fluid is considered synthetic. The association is based entirely upon marketing claims. In the real world, the performance of a lubricant is a function of both the base fluid and the additives which make up the product. Although most synthetic basestocks offer certain advantages relative to conventional stocks, superior performance is not guaranteed by their use.”

Henkel Lubricant Technologies refers to the traditional definition described by ASTM D 4175 from the American Society for Testing and Materials. In this case, synthetic is defined as originating from the chemical synthesis of relatively pure organic compounds from one or more of a wide variety of raw materials. Henkel produces ester basestocks used in the manufacture of synthetic or synthesized lubricants, including polyolesters, diesters, and dimer acid esters. A spokesperson for the company said, “we feel the definition of synthetics should include a combination of performance and composition.”

Motiva Enterprises LLC defines synthetics as “man-made, not naturally occurring.” Motiva manufactures Group III base oils known as TEXHVI 3 and 4. A representative of the company said “The definition of synthetics should be based on how it is derived.”

None of the independent manufacturers contacted by Lubricants World said they had heard of the case or judgment. Denny Madden of Amalie Oil Co., which buys and manufacturers finished goods using both PAOs and VHVI basestocks, said “Personally, I have always ad a strange feeling about calling one slice of crude oil synthetic when the very nature of refining is a synthesizing process. I understand that there needs to be a way of differentiating between basestock types and that more mechanical, physical, and chemical activity takes place when one makes PAOs and other so-called synthetic stocks, but all crude is synthesized to make any number of very different products, lubricating or otherwise. So, how do I feel about the subject? Confused!”

Castrol North America Inc. has agreed to modify its superior engine protect and “unique molecular bonding” claims in advertising for its Syntec motor oils, but continues to advertise the product as a synthetic. Castrol says it is in the process of further upgrading and reformulating Syntec. Castrol’s legal counsel added separately to Lubricants World, “The NAD’s decision does not make any changes. Instead, it confirms a preexisting consensus reached by industry groups, experts, and scientists.”

A Mobil spokesperson told Lubricants World that “Mobil is disappointed with the NAD’s decision that, in its judgment, Castrol Syntec can be advertised and marketed as synthetic motor oil. Mobil filed the challenge in order to protect consumers and the integrity of fully synthetic motor oils. Mobil 1, the top-selling fully synthetic motor oil in the world, provides several important benefits not offered by conventional blended or hydroprocessed motor oils — benefits that can significantly improve engine performance, even under extreme conditions.” Mobil currently does not have any plans to appeal the ruling.

Industry experts had mixed reactions to the impact of the decision on developing an industry-accepted definition for synthetics. A Henkel spokesperson said, “If the technical societies adopt the broader definition of synthetics, it will force more performance-driven specifications in the market and the term ‘synthetic’ will become meaningless.” One industry expert described, “The market will move in a direction that it has historically and support synthetics as they presently are defined. PAOs will continue to thrive and support the demands of niche markets that require the highest quality basestock available.

Joe Geagea, Chevron base oils products team manager, suggested, “Currently, there is no strict definition in North America of what constitutes synthetic, and we don’t expect this to change. What we really think will come out of this decision is an awareness that several types of stocks, particularly some newer UCNOs, justifiably can be considered synthetic and are viable basestocks for the formulation of top-quality synthetic lubricants. In other words, the decision sends a message that ‘synthetic’ is not synonymous with ‘PAO'”.


Part 2

As reported in Part 1 of this story (October 1999 Lubricants World), the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus ruled in April 1999 that Castrol Syntec motor oil can be marketed as a synthetic. The decision followed a complaint filed by Mobil that as of December 1997, Castrol no longer used polyalphaolefins (PAOs) but hydroprocessed base oils to formulate the product. The decision is final, but the impact it might have on the lubricants industry could open the floodgates on how synthetics are marketed.

The PAO commercial market can be traced as far back as the early 1970s, when specialized products were formulated from PAOs. However, it was not until Mobil Oil commercially marketed its Mobil 1 products 25 years ago that PAOs became a major consumer-sought lubricant product.

Since that time, the PAO market has traveled a long and winding road, enjoying slow but steady growth while fending off criticisms of high cost compared to conventional oils. In the last 10 years, the PAO market took off significantly, first in Europe and then in North America, expecting as much as double-digit growth. In part, the growth might be attributed to the stricter specifications in Europe that created a market niche for synthetic and semi-synthetic products. The demand has since extended to North America and other continents.

It was the invention of the hydrockracking process in the late 1950s, followed by Chevron’s development of hydrodewaxing or hydroisomerizing in the late 1980s, that created the process for the development of the hydrorocessed market.

The 1990s brought a change to the hydrodewaxing technology, making large volumes of high-quality basestocks available at lower cost. Much of this capacity is used to produce Group II base oils. The introduction of Group III basestocks made solely through hydroprocessing in 1996 by Chevron, Petro-Canada, and a few other base oil companies created a second generation of very high viscosity index (VHVI) oils in terms of both quality and potential capacity—that is, high-performance basestocks had gone mainstream. These base oils, which cost more than the Group IIs yet less than PAOs, do not usa a solvent-refining process and some say they may have a much higher performance level than conventional oils, almost approaching that of PAOs.
Increased severity of lubricant specifications has been the driving force in both the need and availability of PAOs and VHVIs, but it is still too early to tell in which niche these types of basestocks fall in the marketplace. Nevertheless, the NAD ruling has raised several issues regarding the marketing and application of the word “synthetic” that arguably would resolve some of these discrepancies. In this second of out two-part series, Lubricants World posed the question of the market impact of the NAD decision to a sample of representatives from a variety of segments in the lubricants industry.

Impact on Individual Companies
When asked how the NAD decision might impact individual companies, the answers were as diverse as the products each company markets. Castrol, whose formulation of Syntec utilizing hydroisomerized base oils instead of PAOs initiated Mobil’s complaint, stated it is “gratified” by the outcome of the decision.

“Castrol is proud to be a major worldwide provider of synthetic formulated lubricants, and looks forward to continued participation in this exiting market,” said a company spokesperson. “Castrol is committed to upgrading its products and producing the highest quality synthetic engine oils. We will continue to explore ways to ensure that Syntec remains a leading performer in the synthetic category.”

Mark Pernik from Chevron Chemical said, “To this point, most lubricant manufacturers are taking a conservative approach to the decision and continue to use a PAO in their synthetic formulations. In fact, Mobil has already raised the quality bar by developing a new Mobil 1 Tri-Synthetic PAO formulation. For the past 5 years, Chevron Chemical has produced a new generation of PAOs that enhance performance for longer drain intervals. These products improve on important properties such as VI, oxidative stability, and volatility from traditionally available PAOs.

Joe C. Costa, manager of specialty/niche lubricants at Conoco Lubricants, said, “This decision will have a minimal impact on our company as we are poised to provide the optimum lubricants to meet our customers’ needs, regardless of the marketing definition of ‘synthetic base oil.’ Conoco has made a major decision to commit to heavily hydroprocessed/hydroisomerized basestocks. And yet, we also supply lubricants based on ‘chemically synthesized’ base oils, such as PAOs…We continue to provide a complete offering to our customers so that they always have the highest value product to meet their needs.”

Chevron, which produces both unconventional base oils (UCBOs) and PAOs, believes the impact on its market will depend on customers’ needs and preferences. Joe Geagea, manager of the Chevron Base Oils Products Team, argued, “overall, we expect significant growth in the UBCO segment at some short-term expense of the PAO segment, followed by growth of both segments in the long term.” Brent Lok, Chevron Base Oils Product Development manager, added, “In addition to the expected growth in UCBO sales, our finished-oils colleagues are looking at options for the use of UCBOs in Chevron’s synthetic product lines.”

Henkel, which produces ester basestocks used in the manufacturing of synthetic or synthesized lubricants, could see little impact on the company based on the NAD’s ruling. A Henkel spokesperson said, “Henkel’s products are performance driven and customer focused.”

Ed Newman of added, “AMSOIL has been the recognized leader in the development of synthetic motor oils, and we always strive to maintain the highest performance criteria for our products. For this reason, we do not foresee any negative impact because [our] customers tend to focus more on performance criteria rather than name tags.”

Valvoline’s official position regarding the decision was stated as follows: “Valvoline will not comment on rulings or decisions which impact our competitors. Our own product formulations are confidential for competitive reasons.”

Like many of the independent manufacturers Lubricants World surveyed, Amalie Oil Co., an independent blender and packager for motor oil companies that purchases and manufacturers finished goods using both PAOs and VHVIs, said it had not heard enough about the case to make a judgment. However, Denny Madden of Amalie described the decision as shocking and confusing for the market.

George Crow, president of Cross Oil Refining and Marketing Co., responded to the NAD decisions as follows: “Let’s start off with one very important premise, that motor oil is, after all, mainly a marketing-driven event. We are not talking [about] whether these oils meet the requirements for which they were blended; rather, we are talking about the attack on Mobil’s long-held dominance in the synthetic market. And they built this position around PAOs. If another product actually can give equal performance to PAOs, then Mobil is at a cost disadvantage. It will definitely affect Mobil, being a producer of PAOs…It will enhance the standing of the VHVI producers, which are becoming more numerous. In this case Petro-Canada, Chevron, Shell Europe, Exxon, Texaco, and soon Sun will be able to compete, economically, with Mobil. In the past, this was not the case.”

Crow continued, “Now, after saying all of this, and if Mobil is able to keep their brand image and advertising strong, they will be able to continue to maintain their number one position in synthetics. They may have to reduce their price on PAOs, or have to revert to using all or some VHVI material to economically compete. Or just not make as much money as their competitors will on the sale of a quart of synthetic product. I think this will make PAOs become more competitive with VHVIs and enhance the demand for VHVIs in the future. I think it is a good move for the industry, a good move for Castrol, and an unfortunate event for Mobil. For Cross Oil, it will not have an immediate impact at all. But down the road a bit, if we want to get into the finished-oil package business, it will allow Cross to make more money on the sale of synthetic or semi-synthetic products, assuming PAOs stay at a higher price than VHVIs.”

Impact on the Synthetic Base Oil Market
In the past 7 or 8 years, synthetics, in general, have seen increased activity. One brand that exemplifies this trend has been Castrol’s Syntec, whose market share in the last 5 years has climbed from virtually nothing to 20%. Nearly every major oil company currently has a synthetic product line. Based on this trend, the NAD decision has set a tone that may significantly impact the “synthetic” base oil market, specifically the supply and demand of PAOs and VHVIs.

A Castrol spokesperson assessed, “As the NAD’s decision reflects, synthetic engine oils formulated with high-quality hydroisomerized basestocks—like the basestock used in Castrol Syntec—clearly match the performance specifications of synthetic engine oils formulated with PAO basestocks. For that reason, such stocks have been, and will continue to be, competitive with PAO basestocks. Castrol believes that consumers will continue to benefit from that competition.”

An expert familiar with PAOs disagrees. He said, “The market is reading too much into the decision and trying to cast a broader net for other mineral oil basestocks. It is very important to note that Castrol’s claim was made for a very specific product from a very specific feedstock. Castrol argued that Shell’s XHVI from a slack wax stream is synthetic. The spokesperson indicated this is the part of the decision that has the largest potential impact. The quality of Group III products in inconsistent, and their physical properties are different from one manufacturer to the next. If these products were to be classified as synthetic, and suppliers use some of the poorer quality Group IIIs in the synthetic market, consumers will be misled and the high-margin niche that has been developed by present-day synthetics will erode.”

Costa of Conoco Lubricants suggested, “Presently, the supply and demand for PAOs as lubricant basestocks are generally in balance. Thus, a decision or ruling allowing the use of another (particularly less expensive) oil into the segment of the market now occupied by PAOs will obviously create a temporary softness in the PAO market.”

Lok of Chevron contended the jury is still out on the impact of the NAD’s decision. “Many of our customers are still studying this ruling and deciding what course of action to take. In the immediate future, high-performance Group III base oils will probably gain some volume at the expense of PAOs. But the enhanced competition can very likely expand the total size of the synthetic market, allowing for continued growth of both PAO and Group III UCBOs.” Lok said he believes the PAO market will always be a niche market because of the limited availability of PAO feedstocks.

“The availability of new fully hydroprocessed Group III base oils, whose capacities are measured in thousands of barrels per day, will allow manufacturers to specify high performance in mainstream applications,” said Lok. He further suggested, “We think that this development can further increase the already healthy growth rate of the synthetic market, to the point that both PAO and Group III UCBOs can co-exist in the market place.”
A Henkel spokesperson said, “We believe that the market would begin to differentiate products by performance rather than by a definition that may have been ompromised.”

Newman of AMSOIL suggested, “We’re concerned about the message to consumers. The NAD decision will result in increased confusion in the marketplace among consumers. Even the experts aren’t entirely in agreement on this matter. If a Group III basestock is acceptable as ‘synthetic,’ it helps all Group III products and weakens the meaning of the word ‘synthetic.’ Not all Group III lubricants are created equal.” He added, “True synthetics will continue to offer significant performance advantages, including high- and low-temperature performance under extreme conditions, oxidative stability, and lower volatility, to name a few.”

What’s Ahead?
The synthetic market faces many challenges other than those directly related to the NAD ruling. Consolidations, mergers, and acquisitions are changing the key players in the industry. Driven by demand and increasing specification hurdles, both base oil manufacturers and aftermarket formulators may have to address the performance, composition and supply of synthetics. Economics will also play an important role in driving the market.

However, these factors are all uncertain. What is certain is that “synthetics,” a component of higher performance, will remain a strong presence in the marketplace. At its current precarious state, any ruling — whether it is through the court system or the NAD – may tip the scales in determining the outgrowth and market of synthetics, whether they are PAOs or hydroisomerized basestocks.