Pollution from cargo ships that burn high-sulfur bunker fuel is responsible for roughly half of the 2,000 tons per year of deadly diesel particulate matter at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Part of this problem can be addressed by "cold ironing," or having the ships use electric power instead of their auxiliary engines while tied up at the docks, but part of it can only be addressed by having the ships use cleaner fuel while on approach to the Ports.
Last year, the Ports, working with the Pacific Maritime Shipping Association ("PMSA"), came up with a voluntary plan to incentivize shipping companies to use relatively clean, low-sulfur marine fuel up to 40 nautical miles offshore. For a one-year period, the Ports agreed to pay participating shipping companies the difference in cost between cheap bunker fuel and more expensive low-sulfur fuel. Last summer, that difference was about $600 per metric ton; as of December, 2008, the difference was $140. The Ports expected a 60% participation rate and projected expenses of $18.5 million.
Six months in, the program has been a failure. The vessel participation rate is less than 20% as of the end of November, 2008. Yes, business at the Ports is down 10% over last year, but in time of economic difficulty you'd think that a fuel subsidy would be welcome. But the shipping industry, with the notable exception of Maersk, which should be proud of its 96% compliance rate, obviously doesn't agree.
The Ports' voluntary program is set to expire this coming summer, when a California Air Resources Board ("CARB") marine fuel rule is expected to go into effect. However, CARB's prior attempt at a rule for marine vessel auxiliary engines was struck down it court in litigation brought by PMSA, and it is unclear as of this writing whether litigation will be brought to challenge the new rule.
The bottom line here is that the air near the Ports is still much dirtier than it should be, even though a solution for marine fuel emissions is available now. If voluntary measures don't work, the shipping industry may find itself looking back with regret on the days when the Ports wanted to pay them to do the right thing.