Landmark U.S. EPA regulations to reduce air pollution from ships off the East and West coasts of North America came into effect yesterday, receiving a swell of approval from environmental groups.

The North American Emission Control Area, or ECA, will reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter that can contribute to climate change and negatively affect the health of coastal communities. The EPA estimates that using cleaner marine fuels and engines will avoid up to 14,000 premature deaths each year by 2020 and up to 31,000 premature deaths per year by 2030.

"This is an extremely important regulation. It's one of the most effective air pollution regulations the EPA has ever promulgated," said David Marshall, senior counsel with the Clean Air Task Force, who participated in negotiations on the rule. "Without these regulations, these oceangoing ships burn pretty much the dirtiest fuel on the planet."

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) approved the United States and Canada's application for an ECA in 2010, under an international air pollution control program enacted in 2005. With the regulation now in effect, North America joins the Baltic and North sea regions in limiting sulfur emissions.

The ECA requires that ships traveling within 200 nautical miles of the non-Arctic U.S. and Canadian coasts use fuels with a sulfur content of 10,000 parts per million or less, falling to a 1,000 ppm sulfur limit by 2015. The rule will also achieve an 80 percent reduction in smog-forming oxides of nitrogen by 2016.

The sulfur content of bunker fuels used today by most large ships is 1,800 times higher -- about 27,000 ppm -- than the 15 ppm of sulfur content allowed in fuels for road transport. Even with the ECA now in effect, shipping fuels are 600 times dirtier than on-road diesel truck fuel.

"The dangerous air pollution from these floating smokestacks is a threat to tens of millions of Americans who live and work along our coastlines," Elena Craft, health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "America has the ingenuity to meet these vitally important clean air standards and protect human health and the environment from the serious impacts associated with shipping pollution."

In the environmental community, calls to put a carbon price on bunker fuel have been steadily growing louder (ClimateWire, May 25).

Alaska and cruise ship owners object
Earlier this month, Alaska mounted a lawsuit against the Obama administration to block the North American ECA, citing the high cost of low-sulfur fuel (Greenwire, July 16). The cruise industry has also voiced opposition to the rule, although it supports the general goals and principles.

"Our industry is committed to protecting coastal air quality not only because it is the responsible thing to do, but also because the very nature of our business depends on a healthy natural environment," according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

But the industry is concerned about the limited availability of low-sulfur fuel and the related economic impacts. Ships could end up competing with land-based businesses for ECA-compliant fuel, which would ultimately raise prices for the public. Under the current rule, CLIA projects the number of cruise passengers visiting North American ports would fall by 2.2 million, cutting 14,000 jobs and producing $1.5 billion in losses to local economies.

The cruise industry has said the singular focus on low-sulfur fuels could also have a higher impact on human health than some other options, such as exhaust scrubbers, using alternative energy sources at port and adjusting ship speeds. CLIA has been working with a bipartisan group of House and Senate members to urge EPA to adopt a more flexible approach to meeting the ECA goals.

However, the IMO rule already stipulates that ships can use any "fitting, material, appliance or apparatus or other procedures, alternative fuel oils, or compliance methods" so long as they are at least as effective in reducing emissions. In a letter sent to the IMO earlier this year, EPA said that the alternatives proposed by the cruise lines to date do not meet this requirement.

"The IMO's regulation is very clear it has to be at least as effective in terms of emissions reductions," said Marcie Keever, director of the oceans and vessels project at Friends of the Earth. "The proposals that we've seen from the cruise industry have not been equivalent and not as effective as what's allowed by the emission control requirements.

"We feel the industry has had ample time to prepare," she added. "And there are real equivalency measures the industry can take advantage of."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500