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IMO Alert: Proposal to Exempt Steamships Needs to be Changed

Rich Kassel

Posted September 24, 2010

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At next week’s International Maritime Organization meeting in London, delegates will decide the fate of a little-noticed proposal to exempt some of the oldest, dirtiest ships from the international agreement that governs the implementation of a landmark Emission Control Area around the US and Canadian coastlines.

Switchboard readers may remember last March, when I applauded loudly as the IMO adopted the US/Canadian proposal to create the Emission Control Area around North America.

NRDC applauded the adoption of the ECA (and worked hard for its adoption) because it was a smart, fair, cost-effective approach to cleaning up the dirty, ocean-going ships that enter and leave our waters:  starting in 2015, all ships would have to switch from staggeringly dirty residual fuel (also called “bunker” fuel) to a much cleaner diesel-like fuel when travelling within 200 nautical miles of our shorelines. 

Reducing sulfur levels in ship fuel is the critical first step in cleaning up ship pollution. 

To give you a sense of scale, today’s ships burn bunker fuel that contains sulfur up to 45,000 parts-per-million in sulfur—sulfur that translates into sulfur dioxide and particulate soot emissions after travelling through the engine and exiting the ship’s smokestacks.   After 2015, ships travelling in the ECA will burn fuel that contains no more than 1,000 ppm—reducing those particulate soot emissions by 85 percent and enabling the use of pollution-cutting equipment to reduce smog-forming nitrogen oxides by 80 percent, which will be required in 2016.  Today’s trucks and buses have their sulfur capped at 15 ppm.

The health benefits from implementing the ECA will be enormous.  Air quality will improve along the coasts and even hundreds of miles inland, with air quality benefits extending all the way to Nevada, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania - and even the Grand Canyon. EPA estimates that implementing the ECA will avoid as many as 14,000 premature deaths in 2020, and relieve acute respiratory symptoms in nearly 5 million people each year.  

And, the financial benefits will far, far, far exceed the expected implementation costs.  In fact, EPA estimates that there will be more than $34 in health benefits for every $1 in implementation costs.  It’s hard to find a better deal in health policy.

Now, a proposal is circulating that would exempt all steamships from MARPOL Annex VI, the international agreement that governs the establishment of the North American ECA, as well as ECAs in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea.  Plus, this exemption would cover any future ECAs that may be established in the Mediterranean, near busy Asian ports,  or in other parts of the world.

If adopted, this proposal would send the message that ECA exemptions and carve-outs are possible—a slippery slope that would undermine some of the environmental and health benefits of the ECA program. 

Plus, adopting this proposal would compromise the fair, equitable treatment of all ships that was envisioned in the original ECA proposal and would provide competitive advantages to the companies that use these oldest, dirtiest ships.  That’s not the signal we want to send.

Cleaning up these floating smokestacks is critical – they are some of the dirtiest engines in our midst.  At the IMO meeting next week, I’ll be working with our environmental NGO colleagues and progressive shipping interests to try to fix this situation.

Stay tuned. 

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Haifeng WangSep 28 2010 03:47 PM

I read a similar article in It's interesting that the well-designed policy has to give ground to steamships... To keep steamships out of the ECA, some cost effectiveness study has to be made to prove that the designation of the ECA will cause severe damage to the industry and that keeping steamships out wont have much impact on health and air pollution reduction. Without proving this, I don't think this proposal should be approved...

Rich KasselSep 30 2010 05:57 AM

Haifeng -
Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, this proposal is not based on any cost-effectiveness or cost-benefit analysis. Rather, it's what sometimes happens in the sausage-making of legislation, whether that's at the state level, in Congress, or at the international level. Steamships have some particular technical issues that makes the transition to lower-sulfur distillate fuel harder than for most other ships, and they have an effective lobby. So, as a result, a debate about exemptions is on the IMO agenda.

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