From the TUC

Sulphur emissions at sea: A big stink in the shipping industry

01 Jul 2014, by Guest in Environment

80,000 ships call in European ports each year, adding massively to air pollution because of the high sulphur, low quality fuels they burn at sea and on the dockside. Yet ship operators are objecting to a new EU Directive soon to come into force regulating deep cuts in sulphur emissions.

And there’s an unintended consequence of the new regulations. Because of tougher emission standards in Emission Control Areas (ECAs) like the North Sea and the Baltic, trade is being diverted to our west coast ports like Bristol and more freight is finishing its journey across the UK by road, meaning more traffic congestion and pollution from road transport.

Sulphur is a residue contained within the cheap but heavy crude oils preferred by shipping companies. Ship and port operators, slow to react to the new sulphur control regulations (a government consultation has just closed) are now calling for more time, and meanwhile, are looking for ways round the new rules, such as switching trade to Atlantic coast ports. But ships sailing in US waters have already been fined for not using the correct fuel.

Back in 1973, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships first regulated pollution from oil, chemicals, sewage and garbage at sea. But rising awareness of the effects of air pollution on public health, and the effects of acid rain, new regulations bring new limits on sulphur in shipping fuel.

Why does shipping fuel have a high sulphur content?

Sulphur is a residue contained within heavy crude oils. During the “cracking” process of converting crude oil to fuels, the amount of sulphur climbs as petrol and diesel and other petrochemicals are driven off. The resultant fuel oil used by shipping operators is so thick you could walk on it in cold weather. This tar like oil is understandably cheap by comparison to other fuels and was picked up by the shipping industry as the perfect alternative to coal.

Limiting sulphur emissions

Legislation currently allows ships to release already high levels of sulphur into the atmosphere: up to 35,000 parts per million (ppm) in their exhaust fumes. To put this into context, the levels in emissions from road vehicles is no more than 10 ppm!

When the new legislation was being drafted it was realised that some areas of the globe had a higher concentration of shipping than others, and hence Emission Control Area’s (ECAs) were created around the world where more stringent limits were to apply.

Under the new regulations, ships sailing outside the control areas (ECAs) can use fuel with 3% sulphur, but only 1% sulphur inside the ECAs. And from 1 January 2015 this limit inside the ECAs drops to 0.1%. These defined areas include:

  • The English Channel and North Sea
  • The Baltic.
  • Ports along the coast of North America.

As a result, ships calling in Bristol will be able to burn 3% sulphur fuel, whilst ships sailing through the ECA or to a port such as Felixstowe or Immingham will need to switch to either a fuel with no more than 0.1% sulphur, or an alternative low sulphur fuel.

The EU has also issued a directive instructing member states to introduce legislation to implement these changes.

Impact on sea and road transport

The problem ship operators face is that a fuel which reaches the 0.1% sulphur target involves diluting conventional shipping oil with diesel through a very expensive distillation process increasing the cost of the fuel by between $300 and $350 per metric tonne.

Such is the price increase that ferry companies have simply removed services from the North Sea. Short sea and coastal shipping routes have been undercut by road haulage firms, and in the process creating the potential for a surge in CO2 emissions from road transport.

The cost of imports and exports through effected ports from Asia could rise by 10% as the cost of compliance with this legislation is passed on. Ports on the unaffected west coast of the UK will potentially see more traffic as shipping routes are redesigned reducing the flow of freight through Felixstowe, our largest port, Southampton, London and elsewhere.

However, the fines that European countries are imposing for non-compliance are a joke. It would therefore be more cost effective for shipping companies to run the risk of being caught as fines don’t even amount to the quarter of the saving a ship would make, for example, on a voyage from the entrance to the English Channel up to Hamburg.

UK draft legislation even gives shipping lines a get out of jail free card. All they have to do is declare that they could not get the supplies of fuel that they need and they can avoid a fine!

The Government’s consultation in this closed on the 1st July, but its impact assessment only focuses on shipping and the supply of fuel. The most obvious solution would be to lobby for stricter penalties and to financially support the west and south coast UK ports and short sea/coastal shippers.