Guest: New EPA Emission Standards Would Hurt Short-Sea Shipping

By Garth Mitcham, March 4, 2014, Seattle Time

WASHINGTON is defined in part by its strong maritime tradition. The Puget Sound hosts three of the 50 largest ports in the U.S. — Seattle, Tacoma and Anacortes — as well as other important regional ports like Everett and Bellingham.


From commercial fishing to international shipping, marine commerce drives the region’s economy. Unfortunately, a flawed new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to impose additional, unnecessary costs on port businesses.


The EPA, in an effort intended to improve shoreside air quality, plans to introduce new emissions standards to the North American Emission Control Area. Currently, all ships traveling within the 200 nautical miles of shore that make up the emission-control area are required to use fuel containing 1 percent sulfur. Beginning in 2015, ships will instead be required to use fuel with only 0.1 percent sulfur when inside the area.


While air pollution from shipping remains an important quality-of-life issue for the area, and reducing emissions is a worthwhile environmental goal, the EPA’s current approach will ultimately do more harm than good.


The new standard may seem reasonable, but in reality it will have a heavy and disproportionate impact on one of Washington’s most important shipping industries: short-sea shipping.


Unlike many of the larger, transoceanic ships that move cargo into and out of area ports, short-sea shipping moves materials over short routes close to shore, and ships rarely venture farther than a few dozen nautical miles out to sea.


A ship that leaves the Puget Sound bound for China or Japan will only need to comply with the EPA’s strict new standards for a small fraction of its journey, imposing minimal additional costs.


But a short-sea ship, moving cargo along the coast to or from California or Alaska, will spend most, if not all, of its trip within the boundaries of the emission-control area, making the cost of complying with the EPA’s new policy exponentially higher.


Ironically, the new EPA standard will threaten short-sea shipping’s continued viability, even though it is one of the most environmentally friendly methods of transportation available.


Short-sea shipping emits less carbon dioxide than comparable shipments by truck and rail, and is far more fuel efficient: A single gallon of fuel can carry a ton of cargo over 1,000 miles by ship, compared to 413 miles by rail and only 155 miles by truck. Just one ship can carry as much cargo as nearly 2,000 trucks or 819 rail cars.


Because of this, the U.S. Department of Transportation has promoted short-sea shipping as part of its Marine Highway Program as a way of “increasing the environmental sustainability of the U.S. transportation system.”


If the EPA’s current method of controlling emissions would be disastrous for short-sea shipping, is there a better way? The short answer is yes.


Research conducted by our industry suggests that these regulations can be re-tailored in a way that both reduces costs and maintains effectiveness. The industry surveyed the effect that ship emissions had on air quality back on land. It found that, at only 50 nautical miles out, the ships had virtually no impact on coastal and inland air quality.


This suggests that if the EPA were to modify its policy to require 0.1 percent sulfur fuel within 50 nautical miles of shore instead of 200, it could achieve the same result at a significantly lower cost.


The short-sea shipping industry is not opposed to environmental regulations. Far from it. We’ve supported the previous EPA requirement of 1 percent sulfur fuel, and will continue to support any reasonable efforts at making our industry even better for the environment. We only ask that the EPA considers ways to make its regulations not just environmentally, but also economically sustainable.


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