Echoing back to classic Cold War struggles, Russia has blocked Western European and U.S. efforts by apparently scuttling international plans to reduce hazardous pollution from ships starting in 2016. The “Tier III” amendment to the International Maritime Organization’s MARPOL standards would have required new engines that power the largest ships to include pollution control devices. These devices — such as selective catalytic reduction (SCR) — dramatically reduce the amount of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide (collectively known as NOx) gases leaving a ship’s funnels.
NOx pollution causes serious health effects. It can both cause and exacerbate lung diseases like asthma and emphysema and can aggravate heart disease. NOx also reacts with volatile organic compounds in the presence of heat and sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, another harmful air pollutant. An international maritime NOx standard is an important and needed tool to reduce air pollution from ship engines. Because many of the cargo ships entering U.S. ports are foreign-registered, international agreements are the most effective way to reduce harmful NOx emissions in our ports and most importantly, the communities that surround them.
The U.S., along with Canada, has designated the waters around North America as the North American Emission Control Area (ECA) in an effort to reduce the impact of marine transportation on air quality. Limits on emissions from the largest ships were set because they are quickly becoming a major source of pollution in cities with busy ports. The EPA has estimated that large ships would be responsible for over a quarter of all NOx pollution from mobile sources in cities like Seattle and Miami if the ECA and MARPOL standards were not enacted. In the North American ECA, the standards would have reduced annual NOx emissions in 2020 by 320,000 tons, a 23 percent reduction.
The move by Russia to delay the standards will move the date for requiring devices like SCR on ship engines from 2016 to 2021. However, the delay is not final and has to be adopted by the IMO at the next meeting of the Marine Environment Protection Committee, which is currently scheduled for March 2014. The IMO could reverse its position on the delay and the U.S. has voiced strong opposition to the delay.
If Russia is successful and the delay is adopted, there are clear winners. Shipbuilders and shipping lines that are unconcerned about NOx pollution and have ignored the SCR requirement avoid changes to their operations while companies that have made a good faith effort to research the compliance technology will be at a disadvantage. Of course, the clear losers are the residents of U.S. port cities who will have to needlessly suffer through years of NOx pollution from dirty ships.