Compromise reached on cleaner fuel for ships

By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 6:33 PM

Legislators reached a compromise Tuesday on a proposed EPA rule that would force ships to burn much cleaner fuel, exempting 13 Great Lakes steamships from the requirement and asking EPA to grant the remaining 52 U.S. flag Great Lakes ships the opportunity to request a waiver if more expensive, cleaner fuel is unavailable or would cause them undue economic hardship.

Language added to the Interior Environment Appropriations bill also calls for the EPA to issue a report within six months on the economic impacts of the rule, which is aimed at reducing air pollution by ships in U.S. waters.

The compromise was spearheaded by Reps. David Obey (D-Wis.) and Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and other Great Lakes legislators because of fears that the rule would increase shipping costs enough to harm the global competitiveness of regional commodities like steel and grain.

"To me this is a simple matter of allowing the agency to continue what it's doing without putting undue burden on one part of the country and putting them at a competitive disadvantage," said Obey.

National Association of Clean Air Agencies executive director S. William Becker said environmentalists can live with the exemption for the 13 steamships, but he is worried about waivers being widely granted for other Great Lakes ships, which under the rule would have to transition from burning "bunker fuel" containing about 30,000 parts per million sulfur to diesel with only 1,000 ppm sulfur by 2015. It is unclear how the bill, expected to be voted on in the House and Senate this week, would affect Canadian ships in the Great Lakes.

Becker thinks the possibility of widespread exemptions could endanger an international treaty on ship emissions that is currently being negotiated.

"It's disingenuous for the U.S. to insist on strict standards for foreign vessels and at the same time exempt a large number of polluting ships domestically," he said.

Captain Michael Grzesiek, who pilots two steamships, expressed relief at the compromise. "There are much bigger fish to fry than those 13 boats," he said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company