The Port of San Diego is at the heart of the city’s vibrant maritime industry and an anchor of the regional economy. The fourth-largest port in California, it handles $6 billion worth of imports annually and supports 19,000 good-paying jobs. A diverse and growing port is an integral part of keeping Southern California competitive in the future.
But the shipping industry’s continued growth is threatened by a well-intentioned but poorly designed new policy from the EPA that will impose unnecessary burdens on maritime transportation, threatening shipping’s future viability while producing environmental benefits that are questionable at best.
The new rule is the agency’s latest in an admirable effort to limit harmful emissions such as sulfur oxide, a campaign that began in 2012 with the establishment of the North American Emission Control Area (NA-ECA). Since then, all ships traveling within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. coast have been required to use fuel whose sulfur content does not rise above 1 percent.
But beginning in 2015, these restrictions are set to dramatically tighten. Once the new regulation is in effect, ships within the ECA will be allowed to use only 0.1 percent sulfur fuel. Such a substantial shift in fuel standards will disparately impact one type of marine traffic in San Diego: short sea shipping.
Much of the shipping industry in California is international, with the highest percentage of traffic occurring between ports in Southern California and Asia. But unlike the larger, international cargo ships that pass through our port, short sea shipping is confined to shorter routes along the coast, usually within a few dozen nautical miles of shore.
This includes traffic to other U.S. ports, as well as to the Pacific coast of Mexico, transporting large quantities of construction material such as steel, asphalt and drywall.
Maintaining a close proximity to the U.S. coastline puts short sea shipping at a disadvantage in complying with the EPA’s new rule. While a cargo ship on its way to China will spend only a fraction of its trip inside the ECA, a short sea ship will spend the majority, if not the entirety of its journey operating under the EPA’s new standards.
Mandating the use of expensive new fuel for the majority of a short sea route will create enormous additional costs, and threaten the future of short sea shipping as a viable enterprise.
That a new EPA mandate would threaten short sea shipping is ironic, as it’s among the most environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient methods of transportation available. It requires significantly less fuel and emits significantly less CO2 than rail and trucks, making it a great way to reduce both fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
But most importantly for traffic-clogged Southern California, moving goods via short sea ships can remove thousands of trucks from our busy highways. Just one ship can carry the equivalent of nearly 2,000 trucks. Other federal agencies have seen the value of short sea shipping; the U.S. Department of Transportation is aggressively promoting its expansion as part of its Marine Highway Program.
This rule is not only economically harmful, but also scientifically unnecessary. The short sea shipping industry conducted a study on the effects of low sulfur fuel on onshore air quality. The results indicated that short sea shipping vessels, which are generally smaller and less powerful than international cargo ships, have almost no measurable impact on onshore air quality once they are 50 nautical miles out at sea.
This suggests that the EPA can adjust its policy to require that short sea ships use the new low-sulfur fuel only while they are still within 50 nautical miles of shore, instead of 200. The agency would ultimately achieve the same goals without imposing a massive new regulatory burden.
The short sea shipping industry strongly supports sensible environmental regulations. We’re proud of the strides made by the Port of San Diego in improving air quality through its Green Port Program. But the new rule from the EPA is far from sensible, and the agency needs to adjust its inefficient, one-size-fits-all policy to better reflect the diversity of our shipping industry.
Terry is president and CEO of Eagle Rock Aggregates in Richmond, California.