Bye, Bye, Smokey Stacks

By Peter Galuszka

Many years ago, when I was a young cub reporter at The Virginian-Pilot, I had a lonely assignment that had me spending some of my mornings watching big ships come and go into Chesapeake Bay.

I worked a night police beat until at least midnight with Wednesdays and Thursdays off, ruining my social life. I saw on occasion many horrible things. For therapy, if I got up early enough and the weather was good, I might go to Fort Story, a military base in Virginia Beach, where I could sit on a bluff at Cape Henry and watch ships come and go. They were easy to see if it wasn’t windy since they emitted tall plumes of pale yellow and dirty brown smoke visible from miles away.

That smoke came from burning cheap, low grade, viscous bunker oil. It was like this for years until recently when the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of the United Nations issued strict new rules to cut sulfur oxides that pollute the air globally and could cause acid rain not to mention some carbon pollution.

Burning such oil had become a bigger problem since container or bulk carrying ships have gotten much bigger, especially as trade with strong economies such as China’s has greatly expanded.

On Jan. 1, ships around the world must use fuel with only 0.5% sulfur, rather than the 3.5% sulfur level that had been using. The levels will be measured by maritime enforcement agencies such as the Coast Guard and shippers who fail to comply will face stiff fines.

Over the several years or so, the threat of tighter rules has turned global shipping upside down “It’s the biggest (change) in the history of the market,” Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, told CNBC recently.

The rules change could cost up to $12 billion, according to the Coalition for Responsible Transportation, the Pilot reported. The benefits seem potentially big. A study cited by the IMO reports that the fuel change will prevent 570,000 deaths from 2020 to 2025, Reuters reports.

Solutions include adding expensive scrubbers to ship engines allowing them to keep using the old fuel. Shippers can find fuel that has been ultra refined to lower sulfur content. They can blend fuels. Or they can switch to newer ships that are powered by liquid natural gas (LNG).

Refining firms are quickly shifting to the new standards. Tank farms around Hampton Roads and Baltimore are switching to lower sulfur fuel. Not only are oil giants making changes but a new crop of smaller, boutique refining firms have emerged to serve the market.

There are plenty of difficulties. Oil tanks on ships would have to be cleaned out to get rid of the higher sulfur fuel. It is impractical to mix higher and lower fuels.

Longer term, shipping industry executives are promoting the use of LNG as ship fuel because of its lower sulfur and carbon content that traditional fuel oil. But using LNG requires not just extensive refitting that can cost $5 million per engine, according to the trade journal Freightwaves. Extensive refrigeration facilities need to be built to fuel ships. At the moment the only U.S. ports that have such capabilities are in Jacksonville, Fla. and Port Fouchon, La.

The Port of Virginia does not have such facilities although that could change. Port officials are linking their operation to SEA/LNG, an industry coalition that promotes LNG as shipping fuel. Other members of the coalition include Vancouver, Rotterdam, Singapore and Yokohama, Freightwaves reports.

Dominion, the Richmond-based power company, operates an LNG export facility at Cove Point, Md. only a day’s sail or so from the Port of Virginia. It seems that Dominion’s facility is dedicated to exporting LNG to utilities in Asia and not marketing the product closer to home.

There’s talk that if the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline is built, a natural gas pipeline could be extended to the port where the gas would be refrigerated, liquefied and pump aboard ships.

Although the number of LNG-powered ships under construction is increasing, it still takes years for them to be completed.

For one story about how that works out, this is a passage from the recent book “Into the Raging Sea. Thirty-three Mariners, One Megastorm and the Sinking of El Faro ” by Rachel Slade. Her book reports that tragedy of the sinking of the container ship El Faro as it sailed with cargo and 33 crewmembers from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico in 2015. The ship ran into Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas and endured 40-foot waves and winds over 90 miles per hour before vanishing with all hands. It was operated by TOTE Maritime of Jacksonville.

Slade writes:

TOTE put El Faro back into service on the Puerto Rican run, tag-teaming with her sister ship, El Yunque. It was a temporary fix. TOTE had just ordered two new liquid natural gas ships to replace its two remaining elderly steamships. It would take several years before those new vessels were operational so, old steamships continued chugging back and forth from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, patched, painted and duct-taped together.

For environmentalists, the coming fuel switch is a mixed blessing, The reduction in higher sulfur fuel is certainly better, but it could put more pressure on building gas pipelines that many in the green movement say are polluting, damaging and unneeded.

Another takeaway is that the IMO displays how global efforts to make significant changes in pollution reduction can be much more effective than state or regional ones. Experts from many nations influence its policies and many of them have very clear ideas about how global warming and acid rain can be stemmed. They are immune from getting muscled by conservative American politicians backed by fossil fuel or Koch-funded, “free market” think tanks.