Clearing the air

Clearing the air

Anyone who's followed Jerry Brown's career knows that when he sinks his teeth into an issue, he doesn't easily let go. The former California governor, presidential candidate and Oakland mayor now is his state's attorney general, and the shipping industry is feeling his bite.

Air pollution from ships has emerged as a big issue in California - ironic, considering one recent estimate that as much as 25 percent of the air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin has blown across the Pacific from China, where smoke-belching factories work overtime to supply the U.S. market. Overseas manufacturers are beyond the reach of U.S. anti-pollution rules, but Brown contends that shipping is not. His office has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use the Clean Air Act to force shipowners to limit airborne emissions from vessels in U.S. waters. Two environmental groups already have filed suit to force the EPA to implement emissions standards for vessel engines.

These and other anti-pollution initiatives are raising concern among the shipping community. Shipping is an international industry, and no one wants to have to navigate a minefield of national or local rules on vessel emissions.

The World Shipping Council, representing most large container lines, has urged the International Maritime Organization to quickly implement worldwide standards. This month the American Association of Port Authorities said it would support the EPA's efforts to win IMO approval of tougher rules on vessel pollution.

The IMO is the logical organization to establish anti-pollution rules. The problem is that the science, economics and politics of air pollution are complicated, and reaching an international consensus takes time.

At the urging of IMO Secretary-General Efthimios Mitropoulos, the organization's Marine Environment Protection Committee last July formed a study group to assess six proposals to reduce the sulfur content of vessel fuels. The study group is expected to report in December.

The six proposals include one, supported by the Association of Independent Tanker Owners, that would require all ships to switch to low-sulfur distillate fuel. The World Shipping Council has endorsed an EPA proposal that, among other things, would set a lower limit for sulfur oxide emissions or require use of low-sulfur distillate fuel within 200 miles of shore but would allow ship-owners to comply by using low-sulfur distillate fuel or exhaust scrubbers.

Whatever the solution, there will be added costs, at least at first. Shipowners, however, seem to have accepted that change is inevitable and that they'd best be part of the solution. The only questions are how to structure the new requirements, how quickly it can be done, and whether international action will come quickly enough to avoid a hodgepodge of rules such as the ones Jerry Brown is proposing.