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US EPA sued over ship emission regulations

6 September 2007

Friends of the Earth, a Washington, DC-based environmental group, represented by lawyers from Earthjustice, has filed a law suit against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to meet a deadline to regulate emissions from large ships.

The controversy is focused on the so called Category 3 engines, which are engines of over 30 liter per cylinder displacement, used in ocean going ships. In 2003, as a result of an earlier law suit by environmental organizations, the EPA adopted a final rule introducing Tier 1 emission standards for new Category 3 engines. The regulation, however, imposes rather weak emission standards, harmonized with the international requirements by IMO MARPOL Annex VI, and applies only to vessels flagged or registered in the United States, while foreign ships comprise more than 80% of traffic in US ports.

At the time of the 2003 ruling, the EPA also committed to impose more stringent Tier 2 standards for Category 3 engines in a rulemaking to be completed by April 2007. But the Tier 2 rulemaking was recently delayed to December 17, 2009, which triggered the new law suit.

As emissions from most of land-based engines have been regulated, ocean-going vessels are among the largest mobile sources of air pollution. Exhaust emissions from the global shipping fleet are projected to double in North America in the next decade. In Los Angeles alone, the ships in port produce more pollution than the metro area’s six million cars combined, according to Earthjustice.

Ship emissions are a worldwide concern. A recent study for the European Commission (by IIASA, Austria) concluded that limiting air pollution from ships is a more cost-effective way of meeting EU air quality targets than tightening controls on land-based sources. If ship emissions are not further restricted, the study warned, the industry’s growth will negate land-based emissions control efforts by 2020.

On the other hand, ships remain the most efficient mode of transportation per unit of cargo. Controlling ship emissions remains a major challenge, in part due to the use of low quality residual oil (bunker fuel), which seriously limits the choice of control technologies that could be used on ships. The ship industry is currently considering a switch to distillate fuels, but opponents of such move point out that upgrading of the residual oil would create significant greenhouse gas emissions at the refinery. Thus, switching from bunker to distillate fuels could have an overall negative environmental effect from the climate change perspective.

Source: Earthjustice | EPA delays Category 3 rule