These new restrictions — which will phase out the world’s dirtiest transportation fuel in U.S. waters — represent one of the Obama administration’s most ambitious, and least-noticed, anti-pollution programs. But they have prompted a major counteroffensive from the cruise industry as well as several lawmakers, who argue that they will raise costs for vacationers and Alaskans who depend on ocean-going vessels for basic foodstuffs.
“This is the sleeping giant no one is paying attention to,” said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which lobbied for the new rule and represents officials from state and local air agencies across the country.
For years, large ships have burned a heavy fuel with 2,000 times or more the amount of sulfur as the diesel fuel used by trucks, locomotives, construction equipment and small marine vessels.
The Bush administration proposed limiting sulfur dioxide emissions for ships in 2007; the International Maritime Organization three years later adopted the joint U.S-Canada proposal to create an “Emissions Control Area” within 200 miles of shore. Countries bordering the Baltic and North Sea enacted similar limits in the late 1990s.
The new rule requires large ships to cut the sulfur content of their fuel, which now averages 2.7 percent, down to 1 percent next month; in 2015 it must drop to 0.1 percent.
The EPA estimates that the new rules will avoid between 12,000 and 31,000 premature deaths each year by 2030, with the benefits outweighing the costs 95 to 1. Put another way, when the stricter limit goes into effect in 2015 it will be akin to taking 12.7 million cars off the road per day and eliminating their sulfur dioxide emissions, or the soot from 900,000 cars. Air pollutants from burning ship fuel off the Pacific Coast contribute to lung disease and affect air quality as far away as North Dakota, according to agency officials.
“These important standards will lower emissions from ships and help safeguard our port communities and cities hundreds of miles inland,” said Gina McCarthy, who heads the EPA’s air and radiation office.
The container and vehicle shipping industry, which spends less time within the 200-mile zone than the cruise industry, has indicated that it can meet the new standards. But a couple of firms serving Alaska, including Totem Ocean Trailer Express, predict their fuel costs could eventually rise 25 percent as a result.