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.

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23 responses to “Bye, Bye, Smokey Stacks

  1. Twelve billion dollars to convert the global maritime industry doesn’t sound too onerous. I wonder what the benefits are. I’m not being argumentative here, just wondering. We don’t like SO2 pollution in the U.S. because it ravages forests. But if acid rain falls in the ocean, does it have any effect at all? Does the ocean slowly get more acidic, or do the SO2 compounds break down into harmless chemicals?

  2. Great post, Peter. It is always good to learn about issues that I did not know even existed.
    One question: I am unfamiliar with the IMO. You say any shipper who violates the new fuel regulations will be subject to stiff fines. Skipping the question of how the IMO would know about the violation, what if the shipper ignored the fine? What recourse would the IMO have?

  3. Good post! re: ” But if acid rain falls in the ocean, does it have any effect at all? Does the ocean slowly get more acidic, ”

    I’m a little flummoxed because Jim has said that he understands global warming but doubts it’s a bad a science says and/or doubts science…

    The world’s oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide, as shown by the three sets of measurements in this graph. More carbon dioxide means increased acidity (lower pH). Source: EPA’s Climate Change Indicators (2016).

    This diagram shows the pH of several common substances.
    Acidity, which is the amount of acid present in a solution, is measured using the pH scale. The lower the pH, the more acidic the substance. Source: Adapted from Environment Canada (2010).

    Over the last few decades, the amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean has increased all over the world, and so has ocean acidity.

    Of course, if one doubts NOAA and NASA, they probably think the EPA is a bunch of lying SOBS also, eh?

    I doubt though that the worlds ship fleets are going to change quickly – it will take decades… and that assumes that supplies of gas continue to be abundant…

    Also – thousands of inhabited islands in the world and many without native fossil fuels and they use diesel for electricity…

  4. Dick, maritime law enforcement routinely forces international regs via treaties. These can involve safety, fishing, environment.
    Larry touche! One point is that big ships don’t always shift to land based electricity when they dock so their air pollution affects people living nearby. They can be poor

  5. Dick. Uscg routinely inspects visiting ships for safety and environmental flaws

  6. “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.”

    This switch to gas could be a premature solution. The IMO has been busy and as you say … without getting muscled by our pols. RMI announced in June the establishment a new climate change agreement called the Poseidon Principals. Working behind closed doors for 1/12 years with the International Maritime Organization and others, the agreement “redefines the role of banks in the maritime shipping sector and lays a clear path for the broader financial sector to make new significant contributions to global decarbonization.”

    Eleven international banks, worth approximately $100 billion, have signed onto the Principals which represents the “first example of financial players joining forces to drive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions in line with a climate target. The signatories to the Poseidon Principles will work to foster the decarbonization of the maritime shipping sector …. They will do this in line with the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO’s) climate target of 50 percent absolute GHG reductions by 2050.”

    Where this will lead is not clear, but RMI has no illusions about the use of natural gas as an oil substitute. Certainly, with lending institutions putting decarbonization up front there is hope.

  7. Jane,
    Thank you for your comment. One question: what is RMI and how do they relate to IMO?



    A contrary opinion on ocean acidity, although either way the emissions from the engines on shipping are likely to be a minor contributor. But burning bunker oil produces plenty of bad stuff, so moving to more efficient and cleaner engines makes great sense. As I recall the industry has had a long run up to this.

    • re: ” About Anthony:

      I’m the founder and editor of the world’s most viewed website on climate. I’m a former AMS Television Seal Holder (Seal 676 retired) television meteorologist who spent 25 years on the air and who also operates a weather technology and content business, as well as continues daily forecasting on radio, just for fun.

      Weather measurement and weather presentation technology is my specialty. I also provide weather stations and custom weather monitoring solutions via (if you like my work, please consider buying a weather gadget there, StormPredator for example) and, and turn key weather channels with advertising at

      so you choose this guy for your science? geeze Steve…

  9. Rocky Mountain Institute … the original group fighting climate change headed by Amory Lovins. TFor years they have brought together groups to address a variety of climate issues and done an excellent job.

    Early on they instigated the retrofit of the Empire State building which acted as a flagship for efficiency renovation. They also brought utilities together to chart a path forward and still run an ELab every year for utilities generating electricity.

    They do not have a formal tie to IMO. They just served as organizer of the idea to bring maritime investors into the fold, providing the climate expertise to help design the program.

  10. Steve. Thanks for your comment but “Watts Ap” gas ties to the Kochs and the Heartland Institute. Just saying.

    • I cannot believe these folks put any credence in that website… or choose it as more credible than real scientists. I think that says a lot about things…

      • Ad hominem arguments and an appeal to authority. It is all you have, and that’s why I’m wasting less time on this exercise. If you cannot refute their arguments and the data, then those authors clearly have a deeper understanding of this than you guys do. Instead you just imply they lie.

        • Steve – I’m just agog that we have folks who are not scientists and some of us consider their views the same as what scientists say. It’s like science is no better than other folks opinions… It boggles the mind. I’m sorry but I do not put much stock in folks who do not have a degree in science telling me about Climate… or for that matter, anything else – cancer or evolution , or sea level rise, etc.

          So, we’re at the point where science is just another opinion?

  11. This new sulfur-regulation is a major eco-advance, in the planning for many years. This should stop many megatons of SOx/NOx from getting into the eco-system and oceans.

    But it was not easy, quick, nor cheap. I believe the refining industry has been rebuilding refineries (EU and Asia/elsewhere) for over 10 years now in preparation for this event. The shipping industry has the choice of lower sulfur fuel oil or scrubbers, as well as alternate fuel (nat gas).

    Most of these heavy bunker fuels, that the ships used til now, were made overseas, because in the USA we already cracked most of the crude oil to more valuable gasoline and diesel etc. So to some extent, the massive overseas refinery revamp effort has probably been less visible in the states.

    I am frustated that nobody appreciates the magnitude of this and other advancements, such as reduced U.S. CO2 and ultra-low auto emissions in the USA. We are so hell bent on negativism that the good news is being squelched or worse falsified to outrage Americans.

    But thanks to Peter on this one.

    I believe there is some future concern that diesel prices could increase as some ships will need to use low sulfur diesel now.

    • PS- Peter I am thinking most of the smokey ship smoke stacks in the USA went away some decades ago with prior regulations forcing the use of low sulfur diesel fuel near the shore.

  12. Tbill. I do not know. The issue, as noted, goes beyond the us since the entire point if shipping involves many ration

  13. Tbill, maybe so. I do not know. But the IMO regs are clear and that is what driving this.

  14. Most ocean-based ships are Uber polluting – but this is another one of those areas where land-based pollution is not readily recognized because it’s so disbursed. Millions of cars a day – though much cleaner than before – they all add up to significant CO2 emissions…

    Took a trip recently on the Mississippi, and we went by a barge with a tug that was putting out visible smoke emissions but it was told that those barges were equivalent to 100 tractor trailers. Well ocean-going ships are 100/1000 times that level.

    Okay – so you have to calculate what YOUR SHARE of the ocean-going ships pollution is – because they are carrying stuff FOR YOU!

    And if you compare that to how much CO2 you generae from your car or your home – it’s less – perhaps a lot less… not sure.. but the point is to educate ourselves on these issues so we can make informed judgements.

  15. Steve, I fail to see the ad hominem here. You presented Mr. Watt who in turn gives me an Australian professor. Mr. Watt is a weather forecaster. I am not qualified to assess this. Watt is linked to the Koch network as a quick Google search shows. The lines are clear. What’s your point? Thanks, Peter

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