Ship pollution is rising as the U.S. waits for world leaders to act

Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
A logjam of cargo ships wait in the San Francisco Bay to enter the Port of Oakland, Calif., in March 2021.

When the first American-made lake freighter built in more than 35 years launched in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., last year, the 639-foot ship was outfitted for the future. The M/V Mark W. Barker’s larger hatch openings and spacious flat-bottomed hold meant that, unlike most freighters transporting iron ore and limestone on this route, it could hold unusual cargo – in particular, wind turbine blades.

But for all its modern updates, this ship won’t tap renewable energy from the large-scale wind farms planned for America’s coasts. It sails on diesel oil, the same fuel that powers most ships on the nation’s waterways.

This contrast between a fossil-fuel powered freighter and its next-generation future cargo is the new normal for the shipping industry, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that is proving hard to clean up. As sales of electric cars increase and renewable energy proliferates, only a few shippers have begun to try zero-emission fuels and wind-propulsion technology. Efforts to cut carbon emissions through international regulations have met resistance from shipbuilders, oil companies and countries aligned with the handful of major shippers dominating the industry.

On Monday, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the U.N. agency that regulates international shipping, brought together officials from more than 100 countries for a virtual meeting to discuss whether to raise their collective climate ambition. But the shipping and fossil fuel industries wield considerable influence in these negotiations: Financing for the IMO’s green ships initiative, for example, comes from Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.

The lack of progress has fueled a debate about whether the United States should force carbon cuts on its own, using its leverage as an international trade hub. During last autumn’s U.N. climate talks, the Biden administration pledged to work with the IMO. But the administration also suggested it might address the industry’s emissions itself, writing in its public commitment, “the United States is also exploring ways to support decarbonization of international maritime and aviation energy use through domestic action.”

Yet evidence of this action is hard to find.

Biden officials are wary of taking steps that might increase costs, disrupt trade or lead to a case that would reach the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, which has been skeptical of the federal government’s authority to regulate carbon emissions. And the industry’s unique structure – ship owners often register their vessels in other countries, like Panama or the Marshall Islands, where taxes and oversight are minimal – makes it difficult for one nation to act alone. Instead of taking the lead, the administration is waiting for the IMO to act first.

“We need the administration to move on this,” said Madeline Rose of the environmental group Pacific Environment. “They are working to spur the clean fuel transition, really putting a lot of money and time into the fuels of the future. But they have still made no public commitment to using their full domestic powers of regulation to reduce ship emissions.”

As a global body, the IMO remains best positioned to set a worldwide zero-emission target for ships. But the agency has long resisted calls to phase out fossil fuels; it aims to cut ship emissions in half by 2050, compared with 2008 levels.

Experts say the target doesn’t deliver the reductions necessary to avoid catastrophic climate impacts. State Department officials are pushing the London-based organization to impose a 2050 deadline for shippers to eliminate their emissions, aligning the industry with the Paris climate agreement.

But even if they reach a more aggressive target, which won’t be set until next year, it could be years more before they agree on additional rules to meet it. Meanwhile, vessel emissions are rising.

Ships release about 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, according to the IMO, roughly equal to Texas and California’s combined annual carbon output. While worldwide shipping accounts for nearly 3% of greenhouse gas emissions today, experts say it could reach 17% or more by 2050 as global trade expands and other industries reduce their fossil fuel consumption.

During the pandemic, Americans went on a shopping spree that snarled supply chains and jammed key ports from Southern California to South Carolina. An analysis by London shipbroker Simpson Spence Young found that increased port congestion, longer trade routes and higher travel speeds caused global shipping emissions to rise by nearly 5% last year, surpassing pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

The uptick in emissions underscores the challenges presented by an industry that carries about 90% of the world’s trade, most of it in vessels burning molasses-thick bunker fuel made from the dregs of refined petroleum products.

Customers are pressuring the industry to reduce its carbon footprint, and a small number of shippers are experimenting with alternative fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia. The Danish firm Maersk has ordered a dozen ships that can run on both conventional fuel and what the industry calls green methanol, which is made using renewable energy and captured carbon dioxide. Smaller vessels are leading the way, advancing new technology that may later guide the decarbonization of cargo ships. Crowley Maritime, the company building the first fully electric U.S. tug boat, expects it to be operational by mid-2023. The first hydrogen fuel cell passenger ferry in the United States will begin serving stops along San Francisco’s waterfront this summer.

But carbon-neutral fuels cost more, are not widely available and require significant upgrades to the infrastructure at ports and on the ships themselves. The bipartisan infrastructure law President Biden signed last year included billions of dollars to support hydrogen development, which may eventually lower its cost in the United States. Although it provides $2.25 billion to modernize American ports, only one of the projects receiving funding so far includes upgrades that would directly reduce emissions from ships.

For more than a year, Angelo Logan and other environmental justice advocates have been pushing Biden officials to act.

Logan lives in Long Beach, a portside community where adults are hospitalized because of asthma at higher rate than across California, according to a 2019 health survey. Other members of the nationwide activist network hail from inland port and seaport communities on the East Coast and in Texas, where air pollution from thousands of diesel engines on ships, trucks and cargo-handling equipment poses a constant threat. Although the Environmental Protection Agency regulates these pollutants separately from greenhouse gas emissions, supporters of stronger regulation say the two are linked – tighter pollution controls could be impossible to meet with diesel engines, forcing the industry to adopt zero-emission fuels.

“We need this administration to really hunker down and get aggressive,” Logan said in an interview.

Environmentalists and others say that by waiting for the international agency to act, the U.S. is ceding the authority it has to lower shipping emissions on its own and bolstering the industry’s arguments for delay. They want Biden to set specific targets for all ships calling on American ports to zero out their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as new rules requiring ships to turn off their engines and plug into the power grid while docked.

The Moving Forward Network, where Logan works as campaign director, is pushing the EPA to require all new marine engines to stop emitting carbon dioxide by 2035. Agency officials haven’t made any commitments.

“Are they listening? Are they meeting with us? Do they say they care? Yes,” Logan said. “Do their actions demonstrate that? No.”

Yet the EPA’s power is limited. The Clean Air Act doesn’t give it authority over the majority of vessels docked in American ports. It can regulate only domestic ships, which make up a small fraction of the global problem. Between that and the fact that cars and trucks remain the single largest source of U.S. carbon pollution, ship emissions are not anywhere near the agency’s top concern.

The EPA decided not to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from oceangoing vessels during the Obama administration, and officials say the agency has no plans to change its approach. A spokesperson said in an email that the agency works with the State Department and the Coast Guard to achieve greenhouse gas reductions through international negotiations.

Many of the steps climate activists demand require congressional approval, which they concede is unlikely. But there are less controversial routes to lower emissions, they say.

One of the simplest ways to reduce a ship’s fuel consumption, and its carbon emissions, is to slow it down. The administration could lower travel speeds in federal waters, activists said, or offer shippers incentives to adopt zero-emission technologies. It could also enforce greenhouse gas emissions limits within the 200-mile offshore buffer zone established years ago to limit air pollution from ships.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., whose district includes the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, plans to introduce a bill this month that would establish the nation’s first monitoring and reporting system for carbon emissions from large ships, modeled on the European Union’s.

“We’re beginning to say we want to be a player in this game and we want to set standards,” Lowenthal said in an interview. “But we’re not going to be so far out there that it would divert traffic from the U.S.”

For environmentalists in the U.S. and abroad, the E.U.’s approach has become a model of what’s possible. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, last year announced that it would tackle shipping emissions independent from the IMO by bringing them into its emissions-trading scheme.

This proposal – the details of which still have to be negotiated before it becomes law – would charge shippers for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit, beginning in 2023. It would apply to ships passing between European ports and also to 50% of the inbound and outbound emissions from all other large vessels. A second proposal would require ships to start switching to low-carbon fuels by 2025.

Europe’s move has sent shock waves through the industry.

“It really is suboptimal for an international industry like maritime to have each country acting on its own,” said Jennifer Carpenter, chief executive of American Waterways Operators, the national trade association representing tugboat and barge owners in the U.S. The industry needs a “clear target,” she said, otherwise “we risk a balkanized approach, because folks are going to say I can’t wait.”

In the United States, advocates say they have little hope of the Biden administration or Congress copying Europe’s approach. Instead, they are looking to California.

According to Southern California air-quality regulators, ship traffic is on pace to be the top source of smog-causing pollutants by 2028. But because of the pandemic, this timeline is in flux. If the region continues to experience massive port congestion, ships could become the area’s dominant polluters as early as 2024.

Aoife O’Leary, an attorney and economist who focuses on the shipping industry, said states have extraordinary power to regulate the fuel ships use near their coastline. California has long-required that vessels within 24 miles of its coast use cleaner fuel to protect nearby communities.

“Even if you only have this rule for 24 nautical miles, you’ve created a market for zero emission vessels,” O’Leary said. “There are things that could be done instantly to bring down emissions that just aren’t being done.”

California started regulating oceangoing vessels in 2007, when it approved a rule requiring most visiting ships to connect to shore power. One year later, it ordered ships calling on its ports to switch to low-sulfur fuel. The California Air Resources Board recently set the nation’s first zero emissions standard for ferries and mandated cleaner engine upgrades for tugboats and other harbor vessels.

Bonnie Soriano, chief of the board’s freight activity branch, said regulators are now having “serious discussions” about whether to write tougher rules reigning in ship emissions.

“It’s becoming a bigger piece of the pie, as other sources are cleaned up faster,” she said.