State Orders Ships to Use Cleaner Fuel

Times Staff Writer

Extending its reach far offshore for the first time, California’s air quality agency decided Thursday to require ships within 24 miles of the coast to use cleaner fuel to reduce health threats from diesel emissions in seaport communities.

A new regulation adopted unanimously by the state Air Resources Board would force foreign and domestic cargo and cruise ships to switch from heavy diesel to lighter, cleaner fuel whenever they are using auxiliary engines near or in port.

The agency said the rules — effective Jan. 1, 2007 — would affect about 80% of the 1,900 vessels that visit California ports each year but would not have a significant effect on shipping industry revenue or cruise ship fares.

Ship pollution —An article in Friday’s California section about state efforts to reduce air pollution from ship engines misidentified one of the targeted substances. It is oxides of nitrogen, not nitrous oxide.

Air board officials said the rule — and a second rule passed Thursday that curbs emissions from cargo-handling equipment — are the first of their type in the nation.


“We recognize the economic importance of the goods-movement industry to our state, but we must ensure that trade is conducted in a manner that protects public health,” said acting board Chairwoman Barbara Riordan. “We are examining all aspects of this issue to assure that we protect air quality. Our efforts today will lessen health risks associated with breathing the polluted air near ports and rail yards.”

Industry officials generally did not dispute the agency’s estimates of additional fuel costs, but challenged the state’s legal authority to regulate shipping so far offshore. Spokesmen for the industry stopped short of threatening to go to court immediately to block the regulations, but suggested companies may do so in the future.

During a board hearing in Sacramento, representatives of the maritime and petroleum industries questioned whether the state agency has the legal authority to regulate ships up to 24 miles offshore, especially foreign ships. They also raised concerns about the safety of changing fuels at sea.

“Even though the probability is low, if you should have a tanker lose power, the risk of loss of control is high,” Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Assn. later said in an interview. “They would just be adrift.”

State officials say air pollution from maritime activity is a growing threat to the health of people who live near ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, because diesel-powered vehicles and engines emit soot and other pollutants. Last week, the air resources agency reported that pollution from the cargo industry — much of it caused by ships, trucks and other vehicles in seaports — will cause hundreds of premature deaths this year and billions of dollars in healthcare costs in the future.

The shipping regulation is projected to cut by about three-quarters the soot and sulfur oxide from auxiliary engines that use heavy diesel fuel to produce electric power on ocean-going vessels.


The reduction in nitrous oxide — a key ingredient of ozone, a precursor to smog — is estimated at 6%.

The emissions improvements, regulators said, could be accomplished by using cleaner-burning marine distillate fuel or equally effective emissions controls while ships are in port or are operating within 24 miles of the coast.

Environmental groups and healthcare advocates praised the board’s vote on the regulation, which still needs to be finalized after additional staff work and review.

“The state has truly given the gift of cleaner air to communities lying downwind of heavily polluted seaports and rail yards all across the state,” the Coalition for Clean Air said in a statement.

The regulation will complement other efforts to reduce pollution around the ports, said Port of Los Angeles spokeswoman Theresa Adams Lopez. “It goes along with what we are doing here,” she said, noting that the port is trying to cut pollution by getting ships to slow down as they approach ports and studying cleaner fuels for cargo-handling equipment.

The Port of Long Beach has not taken a position on the regulation, spokesman Art Wong said. But the port commission has endorsed an international initiative to reduce pollution in ports.


The shipping regulations go far beyond the air board’s previous attempts to regulate pollution from vessels. “We have regulated personal watercraft and outboards before, but not this far offshore,” said spokeswoman Karen Caesar.

Although the air resources agency said it is permitted under state and federal law to enforce air-quality regulations on U.S. and foreign vessels, industry associations disputed that legal interpretation. But industry representatives later said it was too soon to know whether they would mount a legal challenge.

“We share the goals that the Air Resources Board has, and we recognize that ship emissions are a significant public concern,” said T.L. Garrett, vice president of Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., representing about 60 companies.

However, Garrett said he believes that federal commerce and clean air laws take precedence over the regulation.

“There is a fundamental question of whether a state can extend its jurisdiction outside its territory of three nautical miles,” he said, adding that the association would not consider legal action until the regulation is finalized.

Holmes of the petroleum association said he was disappointed with the rule and was not aware of any other state that required switching to cleaner fuel outside ports, let alone 24 miles out to sea.


He said he would let his board decide whether to pursue legal action.

The air board staff concluded that the additional fuel cost of the regulation would be about $34 million to $38 million a year, plus $11 million to $18 million in vessel modifications. They estimated that the regulation would increase the cost of shipping containers by less than 1%.

The increased cost of a typical Los Angeles to Mexico cruise, they said, would increase by about $8 per passenger, or about 2%.

Garrett, whose association represents many cargo ships, said the state’s fuel cost estimates “are in the ballpark.” But he said he was concerned that retrofitting will either keep ships out of service or subject them to hefty fines for failure to comply with the new regulation.