Monday, February 23, 2004

Marine Air Pollution
The NY Times carried an interesting guest editorial on Saturday, raising concerns about the level of air pollution attributable to ocean-going vessels. The author, Russell Long, correctly identifies this as a significant source of pollution in certain areas, but his distortions and inaccuracies undermine the credibility of his message.

First, he refers to the fuel burned by these ships as "the dregs of the oil barrel". While marine fuels are heavier and more viscous than the gasoline or diesel we burn in our cars, they are no longer simply the final residue of the oil refining process. Most of the vessels afloat today are powered by giant marine diesel engines, which require higher quality fuels containing a larger fraction of refined oils and fewer pollution-forming contaminants such as sulfur and heavy metals.

More importantly, Mr. Long ignores a relatively simple solution already in practice in some ports, including the San Francisco Bay Area. Vessels trading there must carry fuels of two different qualities, one for use on the high seas and one for use in designated air pollution control zones. The proposed global regulations he derides would establish this kind of two-fuel solution for a number of sensitive regions around the globe.

Although this appears to leave the high seas at risk for pollution, Mr. Long's assertion that the "atmospheric scars of international shipping are causing concern among scientists studying global warming" is overstated. In fact, experts are divided over whether oceanic clouds caused by sulfate pollution (the kind these ships generate) promote global warming or retard its progress by reflecting sunlight off into space, thus easing the global heat balance. In any case, marine air pollution is not exactly "low hanging fruit" in the fight against global warming.

In the future freighters and tankers could be designed to operate on fuels similar to those that we put in our cars, or even on liquified natural gas, but these improvements would increase their cost/mile significantly. And here is where Mr. Long's most bizarre distortion comes into play.

He ends his editorial by portraying the entire issue as some odd manifestation of globalization run amok, with "foreign flagged ships ...responsible for almost 90% of the pollution in United States ports". He ignores something of which he should be well aware, as a "former shipping industry executive": marine fuel is supplied locally, as vessels refuel in the ports where they discharge cargo. So the burden of cleanup, rather than resting on foreign shippers, would also fall on the US refiners that produce these fuels and on US consumers, who would pay higher prices for the imported goods these ships carry.

Significant and costly changes to reduce marine air pollution may ultimately be justified, but not by the hodgepodge of tenuous facts and de-contextualized statistics put forward in Mr. Long's editorial.

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