photo by Flickr user Monica R.
I had the good fortune to escape much of this year’s harsh winter in New York by fleeing to my apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
As New Yorkers dug out from one snowstorm after another, mild breezes wafted over my balcony from the Atlantic Ocean, a couple of miles away. As an added bonus, I could stand on my balcony to enjoy those breezes in my socks - or even bare feet.
That wasn’t true a few years ago. Sure, the breezes were still warm, but a layer of black, grimy soot inevitably settled on the balcony floor almost as soon as it was washed. At the time, I predicted (and hoped) that new marine fuel standards and new pollution-control technologies for large ships would make a sizeable difference in my community’s air quality. Nearly four years later, such changes have indeed made a big improvement, both in the air quality and in the quality of my high-rise life.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which Congress authorized to regulate mobile sources of air pollution under the Clean Air Act, has phased in stricter standards for the sulfur content in diesel fuels, most recently for off-road uses, including marine engines. Where once the fuel in such engines could have a sulfur content of 30,000 parts per million or higher, since 2012 fuel has been held to a maximum of 15 parts per million.
Also as of 2012, regulations passed by the United States and Canada require that ships passing within 200 nautical miles of the coast not use fuel exceeding a certain sulfur content. That cap will be lowered, starting in 2015, to no more than 1,000 parts per million. These rules affect ships of any origin, meaning that the cruise ships and freighters that sail from Port Everglades will have to adopt the standards regardless of what flag they fly. These rules had been recently passed when I wrote about this topic back in 2010. The effect four years later, even before the lower maximum goes into force, is distinctly noticeable even for a layperson.
The EPA projected that the lower sulfur fuel would reduce emissions by up to 90 percent. The benefits of lower marine engine emissions include cleaner buildings, but also a healthier populace and more efficient use of fuel. By 2030, the agency predicts, the policy changes will have prevented between 12,000 and 31,000 premature deaths and will have saved $110 billion to $270 billion annually.
Most of the country is already enjoying the benefits of cleaner marine fuels, because the new standards apply to most inland waterways as well as to coastal communities. Even smaller, noncommercial vehicles have largely switched to the ultra-low-sulfur diesel because of availability, with few drawbacks for their owners and operators, according to the Boat Owners Association of the United States. The cleaner, more efficient fuel is now improving life for those far away from the coasts, too.
A glaring exception is along the Great Lakes, where the shipping fleet has numerous very old vessels. Such vessels last much longer on the lakes’ fresh water than in the salty oceans, and commenters have reported that some in operation today were built as far back as the 1940s. Such ships’ old boilers cannot accommodate new fuels. Congress stepped in to loosen the standards for these vessels, allowing a temporary exemption for older vessels and steamships built prior to 2009. Their owners, already struggling with a chronically weak Rust Belt economy, have been spared having to make costly investments in pollution-control retrofits. But over time, as new vessels gradually replace the old ones - or as the volume of Great Lakes shipping declines with the region's shift away from manufacturing - even the cities along the lakes should get the benefits of cleaner boats.
Residents of Chicago and Buffalo will never enjoy the same Gulf Stream breezes that I favor in Fort Lauderdale. But at least when the weather eventually warms along the icy lakes, they too will be able to go outside in bare feet.