U.S. House of Representatives Adopts Maritime Pollution Prevention Act of 2007 (HR 802) as INTERTAN

As the U.S. House of Representatives was adopting the Maritime Pollution Prevention Act of 2007 (HR 802), the issue of air emissions from ships was also receiving focused attention in Houston at this year’s annual INTERTANKO Event. The measure will now go to the Senate for debate and if enacted, will implement MARPOL Annex VI (prevention of air pollution from ships) for the United States. How the world’s tanker fleets (and all other vessels for that matter) will comply with the coming rules was the subject for much discussion at INTERTANKO.

Leading off an informative discussion of how to address stack emissions from marine vessels was Keith Michel, President of Herbert Engineering, who told a packed audience of INTERTANKO delegates that ships are the most efficient mode of cargo transport (200 times more efficient than air). He then tempered the good news that ships carry more than 90% of world trade by saying that the corresponding environmental impact of these ships was also significant. He cautioned his listeners that the pressure to clean up air emissions from ships was not about to go away and that “ships are the low-hanging fruit” when it comes to addressing emissions from any mode of transportation.

Addressing MARPOL Annex VI, Michel said that the net effect of the rule actually did little for the environment because 4.5% sulfur fuel is not in wide use today on large marine vessels. But there are also other proposals out there, some of which represent potential regulations which are far more onerous than that represented by Annex VI. Michel singled out one such proposal from Norway as a good example of this.

Michel congratulated INTERTANKO for their proposal to the IMO for “a global sulfur emissions control area.” The intent of the proposal is that low-sulfur fuel rules should be absolute and worldwide, he said. The INTERTANKO plan proposes to cap distillate fuels at 1% starting in 2010 and then lower it again by 0.5% by 2015. The plan, he said, could have a significant impact on sulfur and particulate matter emitted from ships in the future. Competing plans from the United States involve both the lowering of sulfur levels (within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. coastline) in fuels but also involve alternative technologies as a way to get there. Michel asserts that modifications made to engines in order to reach environmental goals would also reduce engine efficiency. Beyond this, future EPA rules would produce only minor impacts on the environment, but also profoundly impact shipping and building costs.

Above and beyond the reduction of sulfur content in marine fuels, there are several competing technologies designed to clean up stack emissions from marine vessels. These include (a.) scrubbers, (b.) selective catalytic reduction and (c.) emulsified fuel oil. Michel explained that scrubbers have the potential to reduce SOx emissions by 99% and partriculate matter by 80%, but to date, this technology has received very little formal testing in practice. Beyond this, the current (estimated) cost to install this equipment would be in the $5 to $10 million range per tanker, a figure which might eventually be reduced to $3 million if mass-produced. The units are also large (space considerations) and generate sludge (potential hazardous waste issues).

Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) can boast NOx reductions of 80 to 99%. The units, which involve urea injection and significant operating costs, are not particularly tolerant of high-sulfur fuels. The estimated cost of installation could amount to as much as $1.5 million per unit (much less than scrubbers) but these units do not easily lend themselves to retrofitting on existing vessels. Michel says that Matson is in the process of installing this type of system on one of their existing vessels.

Emulsified fuel oil is achieved by using a homogenizer to inject fresh water into the fuel oil. Michel says that a 20% mix into the fuel would equate to a 20% reduction in NOx. For vessels operators used to preventing the introduction of water to their fuel systems at all costs, the ideas may not be particularly palatable and there is always the risk that water in the fuel system could affect performance during maneuvering. Finally, the issue of maintenance using this type of system will always be omnipresent, says Michel. Testing on this system and that of the Selective Catalytic Reduction method, are due out in about six months.

Michel stressed that there were at least five ways for tanker operators to reach the promised land; including low-sulfur MDO, scrubbers, SCR and fuel oil emulsification. Reducing sulfur content of marine fuels would have a remarkable affect on reducing undesirable stack emissions, but at today’s cost of bunkers, only at a very significant cost to operators. Today, Michel said, there is still considerable uncertainty as to which would be the best course of action to reduce stack emissions. The question of whether a global, blanket reduction in fuel sulfur content is the best way to go, or rather, allow alternative technologies to be part of the solution, combining with lower sulfur fuels. According to Michel, doing nothing was not an option: “There is no question that, in the near term, shipping is going to be expected to reduce its emissions.”

Later in the week, Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen addressed the matter of ship stack emissions in his address to the INTERTANKO delegates. He perhaps put it best when he said, “With regard to emission control, there needs to be some standard--but not 50 standards. Technology must be reconciled with regulations.” With competing proposals from any number of domestic and international sources, this will be easier said than done and it was clear on Monday that the way forward would likely be painful for ship operators as they attempt to comply with the existing and coming labyrinth of regulation intended to reduce air pollution from ships.