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Sulphur Pollution in the Maritime Industry

While the maritime industry carries over 90% of the world’s trade each year and remains the most cost-effective way to move large quantities of goods long distances, the industry is responsible for a significant portion of the world’s pollution.  The main types of oil used by ships is high-sulphur fuel oil which contains high levels of the element sulphur.  When a ship’s engines burn sulphur containing fuel emissions containing particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulphur oxides (SOx) are emitted into the atmosphere.  The thousands of ships that travel across the world’s oceans burn nearly 2 billion barrels of high-sulphur fuel oil each year, releasing thousands of tons of pollution, primarily in the form of SOx, into the atmosphere.  It is currently estimated that the shipping industry alone accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, a major contributing factor in the global climate change crisis.

The emissions of SOx created by ship’s engines are commonly known to be harmful to both the environment and human health.  In addition to creating acid rain, which damages crops and forests far inland from the ships are creating these harmful emissions, SOx contributes to the destruction of aquatic animals and the acidification of oceans, causing considerable damage to the marine environment.

“It is estimated that 400,000 premature deaths each year are caused by emission from ships. These emissions further account for 14 million cases of asthma per year.”

In addition to causing damage to the natural environment, SOx emitted by ships is known to be harmful to human health.  According to a report from Nature, it is estimated that 400,000 premature deaths each year are caused by emissions from ships. These emissions further account for 14 million cases of asthma per year.

“The reason the health impact of these fuels is not a front-page scandal is simply that those impacted tend to be people living along developing country coastlines and ports in Asia, rather than people in western capitals,”

says one shipping consultant.

The EPA’s goal is to ensure that the entire shipping industry lives up to the spirit of the new sulphur regulations and is working to prevent companies from cheating these regulations by simply dumping their pollution into the world’s oceans rather than the atmosphere.

New Sulphur Regulations – IMO 2020

On January 1, 2020 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will begin implementation of new regulations capping the sulphur levels in marine fuels.  As currently planned, the new global cap will set the limits on sulphur at 0.50%. This is expected to impact nearly every commercial vessel currently operating.  While the 0.50% limit has been in place in in Emission Control Areas (ECAs) in Europe and the Americas for many years, this new regulations will apply worldwide.

Under the new regulations, commercial vessels will have to use fuel that contains a sulphur content of no more than 0.50%.  This is a dramatic decrease from the previous sulphur limit of 3.50% that has been in place since 2012. According to the latest available data from the IMO, the yearly average sulphur content of high-sulphur fuel oils under the previous regulations was 2.45%.  By comparison, the low-sulphur fuel oil that many responsible ship owners are switching to in advance of the new regulations had an average sulphur content of 0.11%, well below the 0.5% cap set by the new regulations.

Use of Ocean-polluting Scrubbers to Cheat Sulphur Regulations

These “emission cheat” systems will allow ships to continue to burn the durtiest fuels with the most harmful by-products, all in the name company profits.

The IMO’s new sulphur cap set to be implemented in 2020 is specifically designed and intended to dramatically lower the amount of pollution, and specifically SOx, emitted by the international shipping industry. However, instead of using cleaner fuel, a number of companies are installing systems that effectively cheat the new regulations by pumping the harmful pollutants created by high-sulphur fuel oil directly into the ocean.  These “emissions cheat” systems are known as exhaust gas scrubbers and will allow ships operated by these companies to continue to burn the dirtiest fuels with the most harmful by-products, all in the name of company profits.

The exhaust gas scrubbers operate by burning the pollution-causing high sulphur fuels and mixing the harmful emissions created by burning these fuels with seawater.  The resulting wastewater from the process, now containing the harmful by-products of these fuels, is either dumped back into the ocean or left in ports where it requires even further treatment. The most common of these systems also retain a bypass exhaust vent enabling the ship to turn off and bypass the scrubber unit at any time. Without a robust system in place to verify and monitor scrubber usage, it remains an open question as to how often exhaust scrubbers will be used outside of coastal waters and emissions control zones.

Even when operational, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, even when these scrubbers are operational the wastewater generated by a scrubber system can contain contaminants in the form of combustion products, fuel and lubricants, and any chemical additives present in the fuel.These pollutants and chemicals include hydrogen sulphide, vanadium, ashphaltenes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, nickel and other harmful chemicals and heavy metals. Many scrubber systems then simply dump the wastewater, pollutants and all, back into the ocean. The IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute recently studied the scrubber systems being installed on ships and concluded:“The main effect compared to a situation without exhaust gas cleaning is that the main emissions will be released to water instead of to air, which will reduce the emission to land areas. The total emission will mainly be the same as for the case without exhaust gas cleaning and heavy fuel oil (HFO) as engine fuel.

“The very nature of exhaust scrubber systems runs counter to the intention of the new global sulphur regulations, which is to reduce the amount of sulphur pollution caused by commercial ships traveling around the world.  Rather than reduce pollution levels, scrubber systems simply dump sulphur and a variety of other pollutants directly into the world’s oceans and will cause further damage to the sensitive marine environment.

A Better Alternative to Scrubbers

Responsible owners of commercial vessels use reliable alternatives to live up to the spirit of the new sulphur regulations including: (1) switching from high-sulphur fuel oil to a marine gas oil or a further distilled oil, (2) using fuels that comply with the sulphur limits put in place by the regulation, known as “very-low-sulphur fuel oil, or (3) retrofitting vessels to use alternative forms of fuel like liquid natural gas or methanol.  Using these alternatives accomplishes not only the IMO’s goal in reducing the level of damaging sulphur pollution caused by the shipping industry, but also uses better refined and cleaner fuels which contain fewer pollutants and chemicals, resulting in a cleaner and healthier environment. 

Become a member and join the Environmental Protection Alliance’s current fight to eliminate the use of exhaust scrubbers and encourage ship owners to be responsible global citizens.  Together we can work to clean the world’s oceans and reduce the harmful air pollution and greenhouse gasses that pose an existential threat to the planet.

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