Focusing on Solutions at the North American Marine Environment Protection Association Conference

Last Thursday, I attended the North American Marine Environment Protection Association Conference in Deer Park, Texas, where largely industry professionals converged to discuss how industry can approach the regulatory changes they face, from a the 0.5% sulfur cap on fuels that is currently being rolled out to ballast water management to strategies for reducing emissions and dealing with greenhouse gases. As a nonprofit and community representative, I was warmly welcomed into the small conference. It is fair to say that this conference largely represented the viewpoints of industry, but many of the speakers alluded to pushing the envelope and going beyond compliance in terms of their approach to sustainability and marine protection.

I’ll say a just little bit about ballast water management. Basically, ballast water is used to stabilize a vessel during its journey as it loads and unloads cargo. However, the ballast water can transport all sorts of organisms from port to port. Upon discharge, these organisms can cause severe harm to ecosystems and public health. Ballast water management programs serve to treat the water before discharge to reduce the risk of harm to human health. One of the challenges, however, is that innovation is required in order to meet new ballast water management standards.

The idea of innovation for meeting these challenges was a common theme of the meeting, and regulation was seen as a driver of innovation. “Technology will not exist until the regulation exists,” said Rear Admiral Paul Thomas, of the US Coast Guard.

The 0.5% Sulfur Cap is a standard set by the International Maritime Organization that requires all bunker fuel to have a sulfur content of 0.5% or less by 2020. While there have been some concerns about the feasibility of adherence to this regulation, some expressed excitement over this paradigm shift with regards to new desulfurization technologies. Others looked toward newer fuel sources like liquified natural gas (LNG) to both abide by the sulfur cap regulation and to reduce emissions. Yet a couple speakers argued that LNG was not to be considered a panacea. Problems with LNG include something called methane slip, where the methane does not completely combust in the engine and escapes into the atmosphere. Because of methane’s role as a potent greenhouse gas (25x more potent than CO2), issues like methane slip need to be accounted for.

According to Kyle Brzymialkiewicz, emissions reductions are only made when the appropriate driving forces are in place, like regulation. Chris Wolfe of Environmental Defense Fund noted ocean going vessels are a significant contributor to NOx and particulate matter emissions – both of which can harm human health. Tools that can reduce these emissions include:

  • using less fuel through selecting more efficient vessels or through smart routing,
  • enforcing the use of ECA (emission control areas) compliant fuels
  • repowering auxiliary systems
  • using scrubbers, catalysts and filters on board the vessel
  • using shoreside electric power
  • using off-vessel stack bonnet technology to capture emissions

Environmental justice was mentioned during a few presentations as a reason why emissions reductions need to take place at the Houston Ship Channel. Vulnerable communities already contend with pollution hotspots, and that burden needs to be reduced.