By Samantha Young
SACRAMENTO California air regulators Thursday approved the nation's toughest rules to reduce harmful emissions from oceangoing ships headed into the state's ports.
The regulations require domestic and foreign cargo ships, tankers and cruise vessels sailing into California waters to use cleaner fuel to power their engines and boilers.
The California fuel mandate comes amid similar international efforts, but air regulators say the 27 million Californians who breathe polluted air from the state's ports can't wait for those rules, which are being crafted to take effect in 2015.
"It's a terrific thing for people who live anywhere near the coast or where the sea breezes go," said David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Margaret Gordon, a West Oakland environmental activist who suffers from asthma and has been fighting for cleaner air in neighborhoods near the Port of Oakland, said the approved regulations are a huge step forward if they come to fruition. But she's not holding her breath.
"It's good that the state is trying to do this," Gordon said. "Anything that means one less asthma, one less cancer, one less premature death is a positive step. But it's been the pattern of these big shipping companies to use lawsuits and appeals to hold up this kind of positive change.
"With international shipping having so much autonomy outsidethe U.S. government, they seem to have the ability to be separate from our legal process," she said. "The maritime industry manages to get around these things, and the residents in affected areas have no legal recourse for enforcement."
Indeed, international shipping companies oppose the rules, adopted unanimously by the California Air Resources Board. They argue California has no jurisdiction to regulate their operations outside the state's coastal zone.
The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association said California at best can regulate only ships within state waters that extend three nautical miles from the coast under a federal law known as the Submerged Lands Act.
"International ships running in international waters under international treaties should be handled under international laws," said T.L. Garrett, vice president of the association, which represents about 60 ocean carrier lines and cargo terminals. "We know it's the right thing to do. The question is, 'Who should be telling us to do it?'"
Shippers last year won in federal court when they blocked a 2006 California regulation requiring large ships to use cleaner fuel in their auxiliary engines. A federal judge ruled the state did not have the authority to set shipping emission standards without the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The latest California regulation defines the pollution standards as a fuel requirement, a strategy state regulators say does not require them to get federal permission.
It would ban ships from using so-called bunker fuel, a dirty, heavy crude oil that has the consistency of asphalt and must be heated onboard the ships to power the engines.
Beginning July 1, 2009, oceangoing vessels will have to switch to a more expensive but cleaner-burning marine fuel to power their engines and auxiliary boilers when they sail within 24 nautical miles of California's coast.
The rules apply to ships headed to ports in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego, as well as inland ports for oceangoing vessels in Sacramento and Stockton.
Military, government and research vessels will be exempt, as will those ships that will be modified to comply with the regulation.
In 2006, ships made nearly 11,000 port calls in California, a number that is expected to rise with the increase in international trade. Without new regulations, vessel emissions are projected to more than double by 2020, according to state air regulators.
The nitrogen oxide, diesel particulate matter and sulfur oxide emissions from some large ships headed to California ports are among the largest contributors to a toxic stew permeating port communities, according to the air board. The emissions are linked to asthma, as well as respiratory and cardiac problems.
Scientists say requiring cleaner fuels within 24 nautical miles of California's coast would reduce pollution levels significantly. Cargo companies question whether their container ships will be able to buy the more expensive fuel in world ports before they make the trip to California.
While some cleaner fuels are available, the regulation eventually demands a fuel with an even lower sulfur content than is now available.
"If the refiners fail to provide the fuel, we're the ones who will be held in violation and have to pay the fees," Garrett said.
Ship operators also worry the engines on some vessels aren't designed to run on cleaner burning fuel and say it's not clear whether switching between two fuels to operate a ship would deteriorate engine equipment. The Air Resources Board intends to study both issues.
A single vessel making one visit a year to a California port would pay about $30,000 more for fuel, less than 1 percent of the cost of a typical trans-Pacific voyage. That cost would increase to several million dollars for a large fleet that makes frequent visits to California.
For passenger cruise ships, increased fuel costs for a typical Los Angeles to Mexico tour would add about $15 per passenger, or a 3 to 4 percent fare increase.
Shippers would be fined $44,500 for a first offense, with the fee escalating to $227,500 for repeat offenses.