Alaska Sues to Block EPA's Final Rules for Ship Fuel

The state of Alaska recently filed suit to stop the implementation of an EPA rule that will drastically reduce the amount of sulfur in bunker fuel used by ships within 200 miles of the United States. Starting in August, ships must cut sulfur levels from 2.7 percent to 1 percent in their fuel and then down to 0.1 percent by 2015. The EPA estimates the rule would prevent 12,000 to 31,000 premature deaths per year, but the state contends that low-sulfur fuel is not widely available and could add tremendous costs for their residents because nearly all consumer goods are delivered via ocean-going vessels.

The EPA's final rule for ocean vessels and large ships becomes enforceable on August 1 and it would create a North American Emission Control Area along the east and west coasts of the US and Canada that would also encircle Hawaii. It would reduce sulfur emissions from bunker fuel used in ships from 10,000 parts per million of sulfur to 1,000 parts per million by 2015. Environmental advocates and the EPA tout cutting sulfur emissions from ocean-going ships as one of the most effective ways to reduce soot and smog pollution in California and the East Coast. In piratical terms, the final rule's implementation would be the equivalent of reducing the soot or sulfur dioxide emissions of approximately 900,000 cars per day from the air. According to a fact sheet provided by the EPA, emission for nitrogen oxide (NOX) and particulate matter (PM) would also be reduced by 80 and 85 respectively.  A statement from the National Association of Clean Air Agencies heralded the final rule as a "sleeping giant no one is paying attention to."

Concerned politicians and business groups in Alaska say the expected environmental benefits won't come without some significant associated costs. Nearly 90 percent of the consumer goods that Alaskans use come from one single port - the port of Anchorage. Totem Ocean Trailer Express, a Washington based shipping company, expects its fuel costs to increase 25 percent under the final rules and its overall operating costs to increase 8 percent. These cost increases ultimately will get passed onto consumers through higher prices. Officials from the cruise industry have also estimated that the new rules will add as much as $19 per day in additional ticket costs and could seriously dent the state's tourism economy. US Senator Lisa Murkowski was quoted in the Washington Post , "The impact of these regulations, moving forward, potentially can be devastating to the public, especially those in rural Alaska. You cannot afford a 25 percent increase in a box of Tide, the cost of lumber. We cannot afford a 25 percent increase in the price of goods in our state.”

The lawsuit filed by the state of Alaska contends that the EPA lacks the executive authority to enforce the final rules because they were derived as a result of an amendment to an international treaty (the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships or MARPOL) that created emission control areas, which the Obama Administration agreed to, but was never officially ratified by 2/3 of the Senate as required by the Treaty Clause in the Constitution. The state also contends there is no scientific basis for extending the sulfur emission control zone to Alaska because they do not have the same soot and smog problems facing the lower 48. 

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