Not My Department

The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association ("PMSA") has filed another lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board ("CARB") over CARB's regulation of dirty, polluting fuel for oceangoing vessels.  

Oceangoing vessels burn the dirtiest diesel fuel in existence, called bunker fuel or residual oil.  This fuel is highly contaminated with sulfur and other toxic materials and is a solid, asphalt-like substance at room temperature.  It must be heated to flow into ships' engines.  Under the very loose regulations from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), this fuel can contain up to 45,000 parts per million sulfur.  By contrast, diesel trucks in California burn fuel with a maximum of 15 parts per million sulfur.  The sulfur content of diesel fuel is the most important determinant of how much diesel particulate matter will be emitted when the fuel is burned. 

Unless a ship at dock is hooked up to shoreside electrical power ("cold ironing") - and few are - the huge cargo ships that carry freight to the U.S. continue to burn diesel fuel while running their auxiliary engines 24/7 while at dock.  In the time it takes to unload and load a large container ship, that ship can emit as much pollution as 1 million cars.  Diesel particulate pollution tends to fall to earth relatively near its source.  In Southern California, as the South Coast Air Quality Management District and others have found, the health risks from this pollution are greatest near the Los Angeles and Long Beach Ports.  

In 2006, CARB adopted regulations that limited the sulfur content of fuel used in the auxiliary engines of oceangoing vessels within 24 nautical miles of the California coast.  The regulations were designed to reduce the public health impacts of diesel particulate pollution that blows inland from ships off the coast and at dock.  PMSA sued and won a ruling blocking these regulations on the basis that California did not get a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before enacting them.  

CARB went back to the drawing board and revised the regulations to eliminate the need for an EPA waiver and to expand their scope to vessels' main engines as well as auxiliary engines.  The new rules require most ships to use relatively clean marine fuel starting this July, and marine fuel having 1,000 ppm sulfur or less by January 1, 2012.  CARB estimates that this rule will prevent roughly 3,500 premature deaths by 2015, with a total valuation of $33 billion.  

Whether PMSA wins this latest lawsuit or not, an international treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory will probably require 1,000 ppm sulfur fuel to be used by ships within 220 miles off the entire coastline of the U.S. beginning in 2015.  My colleague Rich Kassel blogged about this here.  So why the rush to the courthouse?  

Money.  Low-sulfur marine fuel is more expensive than the nasty stuff that ships use now.  So if PMSA wins its second lawsuit, its members can avoid potential price increases of pennies per pound of cargo.  And the thousands of people who will die prematurely because of this?  As the great Tom Lehrer has Wehrner Von Braun say in the eponymous song:  "That's not my department."