EPA to Regulate Air Pollution from Big Ocean Vessels

The Environmental Protection Agency pledged to establish emission standards for large sea-going vessels such as oil tankers, cruise ships, and cargo vessels.


Martin Wagner, Earthjustice 415-627-6700
Russell Long, Bluewater Network 415-788-3666 x110

In an agreement finalized Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency pledged to establish emission standards for large sea-going vessels such as oil tankers, cruise ships, and cargo vessels. The settlement ends a lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund on behalf of the Bluewater Network, challenging EPA’s failure to set any standard for NOx emissions.

Globally, the world’s biggest ships account for 14 percent of total nitrogen oxides (NOx) and 16 percent of all sulfur oxide emissions from petroleum sources, according to published data. Bluewater Network recently issued a report called A Stacked Deck: Air Pollution from Large Ships, which indicates that large ships are the world’s dirtiest transportation source, exposing ship and dock workers, as well as port residents, to significant air pollution. According to the EPA, large ships belch 273 thousand tons per year – 748 tons each day – of NOx into U.S. air.

Dr. Russell Long, Director of Bluewater Network said, “Oil tankers and cargo ships are huge contributors to global warming, smog, and airborne toxics both in port and at sea. It’s absurd that the EPA has lowered the boom on virtually every type of vehicle and factory but the world’s biggest polluters almost got off scot-free. We’re tremendously relieved to this issue will finally be addressed.”

“This settlement is a victory for clean air in US cities and around the world,” said Martin Wagner, attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. “EPA has conceded that it must follow the law, and this agreement will ensure that the agency sets standards that promote human health and a clean environment, instead of blindly adopting the lowest-common-denominator standards advocated by the shipping industry.”

Since worldwide shipping is expected to triple by 2020 as a result of global trade agreements, it would have been disastrous for the environment and worker health if EPA had not agreed to regulate large vessels. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to establish regulations to reduce air pollution from non-automobile engines that significantly contribute to pollution in areas with poor air quality. Based on a 1991 study, EPA determined that the largest type of ship engines – called “Category 3” engines – were a “significant contributor” of important pollutants, including NOx.

EPA claimed it did not need to regulate these engines because an international marine pollution treaty – called the MARPOL Convention – may slightly reduce NOx emissions. However, the treaty is unlikely to take effect for some time, because it requires ratification by countries responsible for at least 50 percent of world shipping traffic. So far only three nations, representing only 9 percent of the world shipping, have ratified. Although the United States has signed the agreement, the Clinton administration never even asked the Senate for permission to ratify it.

In the settlement, EPA agreed to give Bluewater regular reports on its progress in establishing standards for Category 3 engines. The first report will be due in February of this year. EPA is to issue a proposed rule in April 2002 and finalize the standards in January 2003. In addition, if EPA’s proposed standards are based on international trade concerns or any factors other than those the statute requires, it must provide Bluewater a detailed explanation of the impact of those factors on the final standard.

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