Ships Must Use Cleaner-Burning Fuels, Judge Says

     (CN) - Ships approaching the California coast must use cleaner-burning fuels, a federal judge ruled in Sacramento. U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. upheld new regulations set by the California Air Resources Board limiting sulfur in fuel for ships traveling within 24 miles of the state's coast.
     The decision denied a motion for summary judgment brought by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which claimed that the regulations were unconstitutional. The more stringent regulations went into effect July 1.
     The National Resources Defense Council and two other environmental groups said ship pollution was blowing into the coast, affecting 27 million California residents and causing 10 cancer deaths in 1 million.
     The shipping association argued that the new rules were pre-empted by the Submerged Lands Act of 1953, which allowed state control within territorial boundaries, set at three miles beyond the shore.
     But the Act was designed to let the state extract oil and gas resources off its coast, Judge England ruled, and was not meant to make state regulations end at a fixed geographical boundary. International law allows pollution controls for ships entering ports, the judge determined, pointing to navigation and anchoring rules already in place beyond the three-mile state boundary.
     Ship owners argued that the case was under federal jurisdiction because it dealt with maritime commerce, but England said the new regulations apply strictly to air pollution, not commerce, and therefore fall solidly under state jurisdiction.
     In addition, the shipping association failed to show that the new regulations would dampen commerce, England said.
     "[The shipping association] admits that compliance with the rules is not technically impossible or even difficult," the opinion states, as fuel is readily available and does not impact ship operations. Though higher grade diesel is more expensive, the effect is minimal, increasing the cost of a trans-Pacific voyage by less than 1 percent, "a sum that would equate to only an extra 12.5 cents in the cost of a plasma TV," England wrote.
     As of July 1, ships must use marine gas or diesel oil averaging 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent sulfur content, and by January 2012, sulfur content cannot exceed 0.1 percent.
     The new rules apply to diesel and diesel-electric engines, main propulsion engines and auxiliary boilers. Some of these engines are "as tall as a five story building," the National Resources Defense Council said in a press release. The ships commonly use low-grade bunker fuel, a tar-like substance made from the residue from the fuel-distillation process. The fuel contains an average of 25,000 parts per million (ppm) sulfur, whereas diesel fuel for trucks and cars is limited to 15 ppm sulfur, according to the ruling.
     A 2006 study conducted by the California Air Resources Board concluded that boats within 24 miles of the California coast emitted 117 tons of sulfur oxide a day, comprising 40 percent of the state's daily sulfur oxide emissions.
     The new regulations will prevent 3,500 premature deaths and 100,000 asthma attacks between 2009 and 2015, research shows. The rules will also reduce emissions by as much as 90 percent, helping the South Coast Air Basin meet federal air quality standards, currently at failing levels.