Big ships clean up their emissions impact

Big ships clean up their emissions impact



Jim Newsome confidently assures us that all large ships calling the Port of Charleston are much cleaner in terms of air emissions.

In fact, that’s been his summary declaration to cruise ship passenger terminal opponents who cconsider those ships to be belching, bad-breath air polluters — among other charged annoyances.

But air emissions quality forms an important public health challenge for Charleston’s ambitious maritime industry and rises beyond the public-relations and litigation wars about cruise ships coming to peninsular Charleston.

And as those battles continue, we shouldn’t miss the point that the State Ports Authority’s president and chief executive is right — the big ships calling Charleston are dramatically cleaner operations than they were just four years ago, including cruise ships.

And they will get even cleaner.

Newsome is not prescient, he just knows the law. In 2010, the International Maritime Organization approved a North American Emission Control Area. The new standards are amendments to the IMO’s Marine Pollution treaty. The United States is a signatory, and the new rules are public law, having been ratified by an act of Congress which passed with strong bipartisan support.

The stepped implementation began in 2012 and today ships operating within 200 miles of U.S. coastlines must use significantly cleaner lower-sulfur fuels. By the numbers, heavy oil-bunker fuel containing 3.5 percent sulphur must be substituted with fuel containing only 0.1 percent when ships enter the emission control area. Large vessels must also achieve an 80 percent reduction in smog-forming nitrogen oxides starting this year.

Those are dramatic improvements in fuel qualities, but this is a catch-up-fast international initiative, and MARPOL standards mandate even more steps.

On the open seas and beyond the emission control areas, ship operators must stop using the bottom-of-the-barrel bunker oil in 2020, and generally use fuels containing a maximum sulfur content of 0.05 percent.

One industry leader described this as an evolving “green storm” rule and “the single most expensive environmental regulation the shipping industry has ever faced — $75 billion to $100 billion annually.”

Cruising on good evidence
The practical air-quality benefits already are well-documented.

California imposed regulations similar to the MARPOL standards in 2010. Ships were required to switch to cleaner lower-sulfur fuels when they were within 24 miles of the state’s 840-mile coastline.

The regulation was part of a bold new package of cleaner air rules for the California maritime industry imposed by state and local authorities.

A cooperative project involving federal and state agencies and the Maersk Line quickly translated an abstract environmental rule to an easy-to-understand scorecard. In May 2010, as a Maersk container ship approached San Pedro Bay for a regular call, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plane shadowed it overhead.

Researchers used sophisticated instruments to measure the ship’s emissions before and after it slowed its speed and switched to the mandated cleaner fuels. Then, as the ship moved about the Los Angeles harbor, a NOAA research boat sampled its emissions as it burned the lower-sulfur fuels.

It was practical research that yielded reassuring results. Sulfur dioxide — the premise of acid rain and other health threats dropped 91 percent. Particulate matter pollution dropped 90 percent. “Black carbon” levels also dropped by 41 percent. This is a particulate class global researchers have tagged as a “warmer” of the atmosphere and an air quality degrader.

In 2009, the United States’ and Canada’s environmental regulatory agencies concluded that lowering ships’ use of high sulfur fuels could save 8,300 lives annually in the two countries, and ease the acute respiratory disease symptoms for three million people. The real-time Maersk research project suggests the benefits could be even greater.

The shipping industry has been generally supportive and cooperative with these new mandates — but clearly sensitive to the increased costs. And the MARPOL Treaty fuel quality initiatives are not the only regulatory reforms under way. The U.S. Coast Guard is expected to propose ballast water handling and treatment standards later this year. That will likely begin a massive — and expensive — mandate of technology and ship retrofitting requirements.

For Charleston, this is all good news. Our ambient air-quality conditions are not as challenging as Southern California’s, but cleaner ships mean cleaner air — and the air can never be too clean.

Also, cleaner fuel and the corresponding regulatory costs to ship operators are accelerating the industry’s trend toward fewer and larger cargo vessels. And that fits nicely to the SPA’s strategic plans to grow Charleston’s business by emphasizing capacities to handle the bigger ships, starting with deepening harbor channels from 45 to 52 feet.

But as welcome as these improvements are, they likely will have little effect on the bitter debates and protracted litigation now attending the SPA’s cruise ship terminal development plans.

Detractors argue the cleanest fuels are inferior to connecting berthing ships to the city’s electrical power grid.

Newsome and his board counter that shore power connections are just not needed, especially now that the new fuel rules are in place.

Charleston’s busiest cruise operator Carnival Cruise Lines now uses the ultra-low sulphur fuel while its ships are docked at Union Pier.

The company has announced, too, that it will equip its 32 ships with new “scrubber technology” to remove sulfur and black carbon particulates, and promises, “Once the exhaust gas cleaning technology is installed and fully operational on the various Carnival subsidiary ships, they will exceed ECA standards.”

Breathing easier
This is part of an “agreement” Carnival is working out with the Environment Protection Agency and Coast Guard. Carnival also proposes certain regulatory “exemptions” that would enable Carnival to use the fuel source “that makes the most sense from an environmental and economic perspective.” The agreement is pending in a series of international ratification protocols.

A company statement specifically mentions shore power options:

“… all of the ships that will have the scrubber technology installed will use either low-sulfur marine gas oil or shore power when in ports in the United States and Canada. Ships that use shore power turn off diesel engines and connect to local electric utility power.”

That seems to imply shore power use options at Carnival’s ports of call.

But for shore power advocates at most ports, it’s a tease. Shore power is not available at any cruise terminal berth on the U.S. East Coast — and the only plan in progress for hook-ups is at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. In fact, in what many will consider a blistering irony, the new international clean fuel protocols seem to guarantee shore power won’t be a feature of any new Port of Charleston cruise terminal.

“Shore power simply is not needed with the ultra-low sulphur fuel rules and the selective catalytic scrubbers,” Newsome asserts. “Air quality is measured objectively at the Union Pier Terminal and it is excellent, and the new ECA rules for cleaner fuels are a compelling reason we can anticipate that air qualities will remain high around cruise ships and all large ships calling our berths.”

Bringing basic shore power options to cruise ships or even planning for it in project design might ease some of loudest criticism of the Ports Authority’s new cruise ship terminal plans. But all sides in these distractive arguments seem to have given up on rational resolutions.

And that leaves us with the bad news — the cruise terminal wars will persist and the promising Union Pier redevelopment delayed further.

But let’s not miss the good news, too — more than 2,300 large ships call the Port of Charleston annually, and new laws and new rules are making them remarkably cleaner operations.
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