With ships, green begets green

By Tom Stieghorst

It’s logical to think that the EPA bid to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from commercial jets will raise costs for airlines and their customers. That’s the usual side-effect of more regulation.In the long run it may be true. But in the short run, judging from what’s happened in the cruise industry, it may not be.

Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions from ships at the International Maritime Organization have largely focused on making vessels more fuel-efficient. Less consumption of fuel equates to fewer greenhouse gases.

True, cruise companies have had to invest in new ways of saving energy, from hull coatings to LED and compact florescent lighting. Energy efficiency has also become a bigger factor in itinerary planning and ship speeds.

But the end result has been a reduction in fuel expense that companies can use to pad profits, invest in new ships and technologies or even hold the line on price increases.

To take one example, Carnival Corp. last fall said it had saved at least $2.5 billion in fuel costs over the last seven years as a result of a fleet fuel conservation program that has reduced carbon emissions by 12 billion kilograms over the same time frame.

In part, the program is an effort to comply with IMO rules on energy-efficient ship design and IMO’s development of a template for energy-efficient ship operations – amendments to the MARPOL convention that became effective in 2013.

Cutting fuel consumption is likely to be the main approach to reducing marine greenhouse gases for years to come.
Unlike sulfur dioxide emissions, which several cruise lines are reducing through the use of catalytic scrubbers in the exhaust stream, greenhouse gasses aren’t currently practical to scrub.

The main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is hard to separate from other gases for treatment. And scrubbing by current methods is energy-intensive and costly. It adds between 50% and 84% to the cost of electricity produced by a power plant compared to plants that don’t have carbon capture technology, according to a U.S. Department of Energy study.

So reducing greenhouse gases from cruise ships may not only be sound for the environment but at the same time may be a good development for the bottom line. It’s always nice when doing right and doing well coincide.

Australia and Europe tackle cruise ship sulphur emissions

The Quantum of the Seas is one of the first Royal Caribbean ships to be equipped with exhaust gas scrubbers.

Challenges related to air pollution from cruise ship engines are cropping up elsewhere in the world, even as they’ve been overcome for now in waters around North America.

In Australia, a newly elected government ran in part on a pledge to reduce the amount of sulphur coming from cruise ship smoke stacks to the same low level as in the U.S. and Canada.

Meanwhile in Europe, some regulators are asking whether a popular solution to reducing sulphur emissions — exhaust gas scrubbers — might contribute to water pollution in some areas.

The issues are percolating because of a worldwide effort to cut pollution from ship engines, which rely on oil particularly high in sulphur.

Since Jan. 1, all ships, including cruise vessels, have had to meet a much-reduced standard for sulfur in North America and certain other regions such as the Baltic Sea.

The standard, which remains 3.5% of fuel volume in much of the world, was reduced to 0.1% in so-called Emission Control Areas (ECAs). The change will prevent 14,000 early deaths annually by 2020, according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Now Australia is seeking parity with the U.S. In late March, voters retained the New South Wales state government led by premier Mike Baird, who campaigned on a pledge to reduce the sulphur content of fuel for cruise ships in Sydney to 0.1% by July 2016.

Such quick action could disrupt Australia’s cruise sector, which has been growing by leaps and bounds.

Bud Darr, senior vice president of technical and regulatory affairs at CLIA, said the industry is “directly and actively engaged” with New South Wales authorities and the Australian EPA on air pollution issues.

“We are exploring a range of possibilities with those authorities,” Darr said in a statement. “We encourage those officials to take into account operational considerations and the results of a science-based study they have commissioned before taking any unilateral actions locally or nationally.”

Globally, the framework for air pollution control is set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Sulfur standards are scheduled to drop to 0.5% worldwide in 2020.

Countries can act earlier by setting up ECAs, such as the one formed jointly by the U.S. and Canada. The CLIA statement noted that so far Australia has chosen not to create an ECA.

Because of the expense and time involved in the installation of scrubbers — Carnival Corp. is currently installing scrubbers on 70 of its ships in a three-year project that will cost $400 million — the cruise industry has focused on installing scrubbers for ships with ECA itineraries, not those sailing in non-ECA areas such as Australia.

Darr said that the sulphur content of fuel has been on the decline and in most cases is below 3.5%. He said in Australia, which imports all of its marine fuel, indications are that the content is about 2.5%.

In the past, ships were powered with “residual” fuel left over from distillation of refined products such as gasoline, leaving behind oil with particularly high sulphur levels.

In addition to using more refined fuel, ship owners have turned to exhaust gas scrubbers.  Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. are among the companies that have won permission from the EPA to meet lower sulphur standards by scrubbing it from engine exhaust.

The scrubbers generally fit in a ship’s smokestack and use either seawater or fresh water augmented with alkaline to create a chemical reaction that transfers the sulphur from air to water.

The water is then treated and discharged. It can also be recirculated with a smaller discharge amount. The treated water is generally more acidic than seawater, although tests have mostly shown it to fall within parameters set by the EPA.

But some worry that the water, if discharged in certain vulnerable areas such as ports, estuaries and coastal waters, could harm marine life and otherwise disrupt the environment.

Regulators in some European countries have questioned whether discharging scrubber wash water can be reconciled with the European Union’s “Water Framework Directive,” which gives local jurisdictions say over water matters in their areas.

A group of ship owners last year petitioned the EU for clarity, saying the uncertainty over enforcement jeopardizes their investment in scrubbers as a solution to lowering sulfur emissions.

In its statement, CLIA said about one-third of ships operated by its members have either installed scrubbers or committed to do so.

In January, many EU states submitted a plan to the IMO to create an alternate standard for verifying the acidity of washwater. CLIA said it endorsed the proposal, which is set to go before the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee in May.

CLIA added that the IMO global standards should be the ones used by individual governments to fully encourage development of the new technology.