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Rich Kassel’s Blog

House vote today could cost up to 31,000 lives per year

Rich Kassel

Posted June 20, 2012

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Today, the Interior Appropriations committee of the House of Representatives will vote on a bill that includes a rider that could undermine years of work to clean up dirty ships and improve the health of the millions of people who live near our coasts.

Tacked onto this bill is a short section that calls for a 4-year “pilot project” that would allow cruise ships and other large ocean-going vessels to ignore a bi-partisan program to clean up these floating smokestacks, which was promoted by both the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The so-called “Emissions Control Area” was established in 2010, after an inclusive, multi-year effort that spanned both administrations and involved the EPA, the Coast Guard, the State Department, industry groups, and others—and that was then adopted by the International Maritime Organization, so it would cover all ships that travel near our coasts. 

In brief, ships within a 200-mile zone that extends from our coasts would have to burn cleaner fuels – dropping sulfur levels from the roughly 36,000 parts-per-million (ppm) that existed when the program was adopted to 10,000 ppm this August, and then to 1,000 ppm in 2015.  (To give you a sense of scale, our buses and trucks burn a diesel fuel that contains no more than 15 ppm of sulfur). 

Plus, once this new lower-sulfur fuel was in place, new emission standards would slash particulate soot and other emissions by more than 85 percent, starting in 2016.  This program is estimated to save 14,000 lives annually by 2020 and up to 31,000 lives annually by 2030.

But the cruise ship operators, fronted by their industry association, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), say no.  (Other industry groups support the program, like the World Shipping Council, which represents container and other shippers).  

They’d rather replace a great program with a pilot project that would allow them to burn dirtier fuel in some places and cleaner fuels in some places.  Their hope: when the smoke settles, this will somehow improve public health, although it certainly won’t do much for the views in southern Alaska and other places where they hope to burn their dirtiest fuels. 

To analogize, CLIA’s position is like the oil industry saying they want to sell leaded gasoline in some places, but unleaded gasoline in others. 

But the program, as adopted by the IMO, is clear: ships should use low-sulfur fuel everywhere, not just in some places.  The CLIA approach doesn't comply with the terms adopted by the IMO - so if it becomes law, it could undermine the entire program.

The bottom line is simple:  the U.S. is implementing an effective program to make all ships cleaner, and to bring cleaner air to our shores everywhere.  Cruise ship operators should not be picking and choosing who has to continue breathing the soot from dirty ships and who doesn’t. 

For more information, I talked about this program—and CLIA’s approach recently—at NRDC’s OnEarth website, which you can find here

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