Californians Who Breathe Should Like This

Yesterday, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) enacted historic regulation to require oceangoing vessels, including container ships and tankers, to use low-sulfur fuel within 24 miles of California’s coast, beginning on July 1, 2009.  This regulation, the only one of its kind in the United States, will cut particulate pollution from these big ships by 80 percent or more, saving many lives and billions of dollars in health care costs and lost work time.  Disappointingly, industry is expected to sue to invalidate this regulation.

The public health problem that these laws are trying to address is undisputed. More than 3,500 premature deaths will be avoided, and the cancer risk to millions of Californians will be reduced.

Here are the details of the regulation.  Currently, diesel-powered oceangoing vessels can burn dirty “bunker fuel” that contains up to 45,000 parts per million sulfur.  The sulfur content of diesel fuel is directly related to how much particulate pollution comes out of the ship’s smokestack.  The new CARB rule has two steps.  First, it limits fuel in vessels’ main engines, auxiliary engines, and boilers to 15,000 parts per million sulfur if marine gas oil (MGO), or 5,000 parts per million sulfur if using marine diesel oil (MDO), beginning July 1, 2009.  Then, beginning January 1, 2012, the limits are 1,000 parts per million sulfur for MDO or MGO.  By way of contrast, on-road diesel trucks in California are limited to 15 parts per million sulfur.  That’s right:  15.

No one, including the shipping industry, argues with the fact that ships need to burn low sulfur fuel to protect the health of residents near ports.  But industry wants to play out the clock until the International Maritime Organization (IMO) enacts a worldwide, but much less stringent, low sulfur rule.  The IMO proposal floated in April, 2008, would reduce the sulfur content of fuel to 35,000 parts per million in January, 2012, and then to 5,000 parts per million in January, 2020, subject to a feasibility review in 2018.  In fact, 2,000 parts per million sulfur fuel is widely available right now.  The IMO also suggested that limits in so-called Sulfur Emission Control Areas (of which there are two, both in Europe) be reduced to 10,000 parts per million in 2010, and to 1,000 parts per million in 2015.  These proposals may or may not be enacted by the full IMO in October, 2008.  But this is way too little, way too late, for the residents of California who are plagued by diesel particulate pollution – now.