Air Polluters Sail the High Seas

By Chen, Michelle | In These Times, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Air Polluters Sail the High Seas


Chen, Michelle, In These Times


A THREAT TO THE world's atmosphere is sailing the high seas, but activists say government regulators are letting the culprit off the hook.

The global shipping industry coughs up millions of tons of air pollution each year, yet its emissions are for the most part unregulated, aside from minimal international standards. Now, environmental groups are turning the country's seaports into a fresh batdeground in the climate-change debate, demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rein in marine engines under the Clean Air Act.

The environmental law firm EarthJustice, Friends of the Earth and other advocacy groups are taking action to compel me EPA to set comprehensive restrictions on die air pollution that clouds U.S. harbors. In a recently filed lawsuit and administrative petition, environmentalists argue the Clean Air Act mandates the government to confront health-damaging soot as well as greenhouse gases emitted by shipping vessels.

Though cars and industrial plants are more notorious for contributing to global warming, cargo ships are also heavyweight polluters. Researchers with the German Aerospace Center and University of Delaware estimate that ocean ships dump between 600 million and 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. That's comparable to the total yearly emissions of countries like Germany or Canada.

"Ships have traditionally gone below the radar, in part because they're kind of but there,'" says Jackie Savitz, pollution campaign director with the environmental organization Oceana. "We rarely drive by them on our way home from work."

But ship smokestacks loom large in the warming atmosphere. The industry's fuel consumption could soar by more than 70 percent between 2000 and 2020, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a policy-making body that sets international pollution guidelines. Big ships also annually spew tens of thousands of tons of "black carbon," or heat-trapping soot, and about 27 percent of worldwide nitrogen-oxide emissions. One EPA study projected that in the United States alone, nitrogen-oxide emissions from large ships would nearly triple from 1996 to 2030.

Environmentalists say the federal response to the problem has been glacially slow. In 2003, following a legal challenge by environmental groups, the EPA set a mandatory April 2007 deadline to establish standards for large vessels under the Clean Air Act. But the agency recentiy pushed back me process until late 2009, claiming it needs more time to collaborate with the IMO in revising global emission limits. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an advisory organization, recently reported that current international standards for nitrogen oxide and other pollutants "merely codify existing industry practices.

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