Importance of clean-fuel zones
By Archita Datta Majumdar

Share this article:  

A few years ago, award-winning science writer and eco-expert Fred Pearce made a shocking and rather eye-opening statement that "just 16 of the world's largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulfur pollution as all the world's cars." While Pearce is one of many experts concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation, he is perhaps one the first to bring the world's attention to it.


Should the East Coast adopt clean-fuel zones?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

Coastlines are filled with bigger and "badder" ships, each of which can guzzle up fuel equivalent to a small power station. It's a staggering thought, especially when you consider how these poisonous fumes are now being termed as major killers.

In the U.S., California has been the frontrunner in gunning for clean-fuel zones and passed a regulation to this effect in 2008. This regulation demanded that all ships, which are operating or passing within 24 nautical miles of the coast of California, need to stop using their heavy fuel oil and switch to marine distillate fuels, which are cleaner and healthier for the environment — albeit more expensive.

The black and brown smoke belched out by the various ships, tankers, liners, ferries and even tugboats leaves behind a foul haze along the coastline and adds to the already polluted air. Why does this happen? Because ocean-going vessels typically use the cheapest fuel that is high in sulfur content and leaves behind thick residues.

Once the regulations took effect in 2009, however, the picture that slowly came into focus wasn't one that led to a cleaner coastal air. In order to bypass the regulated waters of the clean-fuel zone, most ships abandoned their traditional routes and started taking more circuitous ones to get to their destinations. In doing so they saved considerable fuel costs but completely disregarded the basic need to prevent further pollution.

These ships undermined the efforts of the authorities involved, like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Additionally, the ships began passing through the U.S. Navy's Point Mugu Sea Range, which is a major Navy training and testing area for naval warfare systems, hampering their work as well as the defense of the U.S. coastline.

The result was major complaints from the Navy and a reinforcement of the regulations in 2011. Only this time stricter amendments extended the area by an additional 24 nautical miles of regulated waters.

Now, bypassing the wider zone of regulated waters will no longer have any economic benefit, which means there is hardly any incentive to cheat the rules anymore. The Navy testing area is once again free of commercial traffic and the coastline has higher potential for clean, pollution-free air. CARB efforts are a burning example of the dire need for such regulations elsewhere as well, so steps can be taken to control further spread of the killer fumes, before they cause more damage.

The EPA is focused at creating an all-around program that will reduce toxic-fuel emissions from all sources, along with marine ones. Pressure from these agencies has increased lobbying efforts at the capital, which will likely bring about stricter regulations for the nation's other coastlines.

The EPA's Pollution Prevention (P2) Program is focused on the reduction and elimination of pollution at sources through widespread modification of production processes, intense promotion of cleaner, greener and nontoxic substances, recycling waste and conservation of natural resources to create a more sustainable future.

The 2010-2014 Pollution Prevention Program Strategic Plan provides a detailed guideline to other agencies focused on environmental protection activities for employing more effective pollution prevention approaches. More and more states are adopting the California Reformulated Gasoline Program (RFG), though more strides are needed to announce more comprehensive results.

Governments around the world need to act and revamp their renewable energy applications. Closer to home, U.S. ports need to act on enforcing the clean-fuel zone regulation to prevent further environmental damage, which will lead to climate and health anomalies. The use of cleaner marine distillate fuels in all ocean-going vessels will ensure significant reduction of particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions, which will lead to improved air quality and better public health.

Archita Datta Majumdar has been writing for various industries for more than 14 years. She has contributed articles to The Economic Times, the leading financial daily of India, and she loves research, business analysis and knowledge management, which paves the way for a steep learning curve.