Even before the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach unveiled an ambitious clean-air plan last week, an international agency that regulates the global shipping industry was considering whether to strengthen outdated emissions standards for cargo vessels -- a move that could significantly improve air quality.
"There should be more stringent standards," said Eivind Vagslid, an environmental official with the International Maritime Organization, which began considering a revision of its 1997 regulations in April. "The levels of the past were set quite leniently to get nations to ratify them and to make them technically achievable."
Over the years, the world fleet of cargo vessels has emerged as a leading source of sulfur oxides, particulates and nitrogen oxides. Many ships emit as much exhaust per day as 12,000 cars.
The emissions have been linked to global warming, respiratory illnesses and premature deaths. In the Los Angeles area, studies show that diesel exhaust from trucks, locomotives, heavy equipment and ships causes cancer and is responsible for 70% of pollution-related health problems and hundreds of deaths every year.
If tougher maritime organization standards are adopted, they could reduce a large source of air pollution for the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor complex, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, which are next to a main shipping lane, and Bay Area ports such as Oakland.
Almost 5,800 ships called at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach last year, releasing roughly 14,000 tons of air pollutants. In 2004, more than 7,200 ships sailed past Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, releasing almost 16,000 tons of pollutants.
Air quality officials in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties fear that projected growth in ship traffic will erase gains they have made in cutting pollution from onshore sources such as automobiles, manufacturers and businesses.
"It's good to see the talks are going on," said Tom Murphy, a manager at the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. "The current IMO standards are nonstandards."
Based in London, the International Maritime Organization develops international standards for ship safety, security, vessel design, environmental protection and crew training. It has 166 member nations, including the United States. The agency's rules are enforced by port authorities, coast guards and maritime agencies around the world.
The organization could adopt revised standards as early as next July.
Rather than wait for the maritime association to act, port officials in Los Angeles and Long Beach have forged ahead with their own clean-air plan -- a draft of which was announced at a June 28 news conference.
The $2-billion, five-year proposal seeks to reduce sooty diesel emissions from cargo ships, trains and trucks by more than 50%. Harbor officials hope to achieve those goals by specifying conditions in terminal leases, revising port rules and adjusting harbor fees as an incentive.
The plan, expected to be approved by both harbor commissions in September, calls for international cargo ships to use low-sulfur fuel within 20 nautical miles of local ports and to cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 45%.
Meanwhile, the maritime agency will continue formulating new emissions standards to significantly reduce sulfur oxides, particulates and nitrogen oxides from oceangoing vessels.
Tougher measures to limit air pollution from incineration of shipboard waste and from tanker operations -- such as the loading and unloading of crude oil, petroleum products and hazardous chemicals -- also are on the agenda.
For the first time, Vagslid said, the IMO will consider regulating particulates and whether to require ships built before 2000 to retrofit their main engines with air pollution controls, such as scrubbers and catalytic converters. The current standards apply only to new ships and those being refitted with new engines.
Vagslid said the effort is the result of pressure from European nations interested in improving the maritime agency's current fuel and emissions standards, which have been widely viewed as ineffective.
Those regulations were formulated in 1997, but it took eight years for member nations to ratify them. They finally went into effect in May 2005.
The 1997 regulations set the sulfur content for ship fuel at 4.5% -- noticeably above the 3% sulfur content of fuel generally available worldwide.
The current International Maritime Organization standards also call for a 25% to 30% reduction in nitrogen oxides in new engines placed in ships starting in 2000. But environmentalists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency question whether those regulations will be effective.
"No one takes these regulations seriously," said Teri Shore, a campaign director for Bluewater Network, an environmental group involved with marine issues. "Ship air pollution is growing, and growing faster than other pollution sources."
The 1997 rules, however, allow ratifying nations to establish special zones with more stringent sulfur standards for fuel. Two have been set up, in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The United States, which is close to ratifying the 1997 regulations, is studying such a zone for North America.
Because shipping is a global industry, there is widespread agreement among maritime organization member states to establish uniform standards. But the agency's proceedings are complicated by various competing interests: ship owners, regulatory agencies and maritime nations with differing views about how far air quality standards should go.
Some IMO member states are Third World countries with ship registries that make it possible for vessel owners to avoid taxes, labor laws and the tougher regulations of developed nations.
Political pressure, however, has been mounting around the globe to have the maritime organization take a tougher stance on air pollution from main engines.
EPA officials say they want to see significant reductions in emissions from foreign-flagged vessels and regulations for engines on older ships.
"We want IMO standards that reflect the EPA's view on technology and limits," said Margo Oge, the agency's director of transportation and air quality.
In April, the month the IMO talks began, the International Assn. of Ports and Harbors called on the organization to establish more stringent air quality standards.
"Unfortunately, the IMO, because it works on a consensus basis, can fall prey to the lowest common denominator," said Geraldine Knatz, director of the Port of Los Angeles. "But there are too many things happening worldwide this time to have the IMO sit back and do nothing."
The talks also are overshadowed by recent developments at Maersk Inc., the world's largest shipping line. In May, the Danish company announced that all of its ships would switch to clean-burning low-sulfur fuel within 24 miles of California ports.
Maersk further revealed that it is testing pollution controls for ship engines that can reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by roughly 90%.
"Maersk can put pressure on the proceedings," Vagslid said. "It shows that shipping lines can be profitable and protect the environment."
Port officials in Los Angeles and Long Beach questioned whether the IMO could develop new standards soon enough and strong enough to satisfy port officials and state air quality regulators.
Though harbor authorities don't have the legal authority to regulate foreign-flagged ships, they are devising alternative strategies to deal with the vessels while they are in port.
Besides the proposed clean-air plan, both ports have established speed-reduction programs to cut emissions from ships coming into port. In addition, both ports are beginning to supply onshore sources of electricity to ships so they won't have to run their auxiliary engines.
"We'd like to see voluntary efforts as much as we can," said Bob Kanter, director of planning and environmental affairs for the Port of Long Beach. "We've got to convince terminal operators and shipping lines that it is in their best interests to do these things."