Less smoke on the water: New shipping emission rules set sail

Less smoke on the water: New shipping emission rules set sail

New stricter regulations affecting emissions from ocean shipping in the U.S. and Canada have already produced results and are the latest step in reducing the carbon footprint created by the transportation industries.

As part of the new North American Emission Control Area (ECA), ships coming within 200 nautical miles of the United States and Canada are now required to burn cleaner fuels. And those standards will become even more stringent by 2015 – bringing Canada and the U.S. in line with similar European restrictions.

Many large, ocean-going ships use low-grade bunker fuel, also known as residual fuel -- a by-product of traditional oil refinement and one of the dirtiest-burning oils. Bunker fuel has high sulfur content. When burned, the fuel produces high levels of sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which will oversee the program, the ECA will reduce air pollution along America’s coastline and for hundreds of miles into the interior U.S. The EPA estimates the costs of implementing and maintaining the regulated area will reach $3.2 billion by 2020. But the agency calls those costs “small" when comparing the benefits gained from reducing emissions in the area.

The emissions control area is “something that everybody recognized would be undertaken and approved to improve air quality in North America," said Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council, in an interview with Reuters. "It's not a surprise. It's an environmental regulation whose time has come."

The ECA is also part of a growing trend to reduce shipping emissions. More than 50 major shipping ports across the world are already reducing their carbon emissions as part of the World Port Climate Initiative (WPCI).  One WPCI project, the Environmental Ship Index (ESI), awards deals to shipping companies that voluntarily comply with the program.  And ESI is already producing results in the U.S.

Photo of ship steaming out of harbor by Bull's-Eye Arts via Shutterstock.

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New data from the Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest shipping port, says harmful emissions there were cut by up to 76 percent between 2005 and 2011 – while its overall container shipping volume increased six percent. And the Port is reportedly three years ahead of its 2014 target goals to reduce two major shipping-related pollutants, diesel particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.

“There’s no turning back,” said Port Executive Director Geraldine Knatz in a news release.  “The benefits of environmental stewardship are clear and the Port will continue to lead the industry by growing green through innovation and collaboration with our stakeholders and partners.”

Several major shipping companies, including Maersk Line, Evergreen, Hamburg Süd North America, Inc., Hapag-Lloyd AG, Nippon Yusen Kaisha and Yang Ming have signed on to the ESI.  And authorities for at least six ports in Texas have written letters in support of the ECA.

But not everything is smooth sailing. The multi-billion dollar cruise ship industry is looking for exemptions to the new regulations.  According to Christine Duffy, president and CEO of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the requirements “pose great challenges" to the industry.

"Under current rules, the industry projects the number of cruise passengers visiting North American ports would fall by 2.2 million," said David Peikin, public affairs director with the association.

The drop in passengers translates to a $1.5 billion annual loss of potential revenue for local economies -- as well as nearly 14,000 potential jobs lost, Duffy and Peikin said.

Similar attempts to curb international aviation emissions, meanwhile, are running into strong opposition. Representatives from 17 countries recently met in Washington to discuss their opposition to the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which imposes a carbon tax on airlines flying into and out of Europe.