A Black Cloud Rises Over the Blue Sea

shippingcontainers2.jpg Today’s Wall Street Journal devotes a good part of its front page to the growing problem of air pollution produced by cargo ships, which are used to transport 90 percent of the world’s goods. The tonnage of goods sent by cargo ships has tripled since 1970, according to the Journal, and in 2005, pollution from shipping produced an estimated 27 percent of the world’s smog-causing emissions. Not only are the numbers staggering, but the solution is going to be very complicated.

We wrote about the opportunities for eco-shipping containers a few months ago. The source of most cargo ships’ pollution is their source of power — residual fuel oil, a.k.a. bunker fuel, which is about as dirty as they come. Bunker fuel is the “tar-like sludge” that remains after petroleum is refined. The heavy metal-laden goo is collected from the bottom of distillation towers that process crude, making it cheap for shippers — less than two-thirds the rate of marine-gas oil, according to the WSJ — and a boon for refiners, who can sell of their excess waste.

While this exchange works out nicely for those two parties, the losers in the deal are the rest of us. Environmental Science & Technology (the journal of the American Chemical Society), published a study this month that estimated air pollution from ships is causing 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung-cancer-related deaths a year, chiefly along trade routes.

What’s the answer? The international nature of the industry makes regulation difficult. Imposing restrictions on fuel emissions in one zone could just prompt shippers to shift routes to another. Or, worse, they could switch between the dirty fuel and its cleaner cousin at sea, a dangerous process that could cause engines to stall and ships to drift helplessly into obstacles.

But the (admittedly biased) International Bunker Industry Association is quick to point out that introducing regulations to switch all ships over to distilled fuel from bunker fuel would require refineries to produce an extra 12 million barrels of oil every day, which is more than Saudi Arabia cranks out. Hmmm. Well, then how about just regulating the ships’ speed? An executive for one Hong Kong-based shipper told the Journal this would merely result in adding more vessels to the fleet to keep up with customer demand.

There are a few rays of (green) light shining through all this bad news. An Oslo-based group has designed a concept ship that would harness the sun, waves and wind to produce zero emissions, and Germany’s SkySails claims that the use of large parasails can reduce fuel costs by 35 percent. And let’s not forget those who are focused on reducing the environmental impact of the rest of the ship, such as the makers of the bamboo-lined containers we reported on earlier this year. Attacking this issue from every angle will not only improve our planet, it will produce tremendous opportunities for enterprising greentechies on land and sea.

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