Clean air rule may sink ships

Shipping companies that operate in the Great Lakes are lobbying to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from imposing new clean air rules they say will cost them tens of millions of dollars a year.

A shipping group, the Lake Carriers Association, is turning to Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and other Great Lakes Democrats to help them block or convince EPA to back away from its proposed rule.

The rule, which is slated to be released in final form in December, would require use of cleaner fuels and engine modifications to cut particulate nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions.

The emissions cause smog and acid rain and are linked to a variety of ailments, from heart disease to asthma. Environmental and health advocates are lobbying Congress not to interfere with the EPA rule.

In addition to the Great Lakes, the regulation would apply to ships that operate along the coasts. Oceangoing vessels could not use fuel with a high sulfur content within 200 miles of the coast. Great Lakes shipping companies say they would be particularly disadvantaged because they always operate within the zone defined by EPA and would therefore always have to use the higher-priced low-sulfur diesel.

Helping the Great Lakes fleet make the case is a group of former congressional aides who now lobby at K & L Gates, including Mark Ruge, a former deputy staff director on the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.

The association spent $260,000 on the firm during the third quarter, more than six times the amount it spent in the previous quarter.

The EPA emissions rule is one of several issues listed on the federal registration.

James Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association, said the emissions standards could force some of his members out of business. The group estimates it would cost $210 million annually to comply. He said 25 percent of the Great Lakes fleet would not be able to continue operating.

Another 13 ships would be “at risk,” according to the trade group.

The fleet transports iron ore from Minnesota, coal from Wisconsin, salt from Ohio and limestone and sand from Michigan. Weakley said some of those goods may have to be moved via truck or rail if the Great Lakes fleet goes out of business. That would raise costs and emissions, he said.

The association wants EPA to further study how much of the air pollution from large ships is attributable to those operating in the Great Lakes, and whether the environmental benefits are worth the economic risks.

It isn’t clear how Congress will act, but one option under consideration is a rider blocking the rule in the Interior and EPA spending bill.

Obey and Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s Iron Range, have reportedly expressed concern to EPA officials.

Both offices declined to comment on the matter.

Environmentalists want Congress to allow EPA to move forward with its new clean air rule.

After toughening emissions standards for trucks, off-road vehicles and small boats, they say big ships are a logical next step for tougher emissions rules.

“This is one of the most critical EPA air pollution standards in quite some time,” O’Donnell said. “These big, dirty, hulking ships are almost the final frontier to removing air pollution from moving sources.”

The EPA estimates the new rule could prevent 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths by 2020.