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Speed Bump for Channel Cargo Ships?

Two types of titans travel to the Santa Barbara Channel by the thousands. One is the largest mammal on earth: the endangered krill-eating, water-spouting blue whale. The other is the behemoth, oil-burning, smoke-spewing cargo ships that local environmentalists and air quality managers have been lobbying for decades to rein in.

Last year, county officials say, cargo ships made about 2,200 trips through the Channel on the 155-mile last leg of a long voyage from the Pacific Rim to Long Beach and Los Angeles, burning oil the consistency of asphalt in engines as big as a small power plant and potentially risking the lives of whales frolicking in and around the Channel, especially in the summer season. It’s a risk that’s likely to increase in just a few years as shipping traffic is poised to return to pre-recession levels of about 7,000 trips annually, say officials.

The smokestack pollution from these ships blows onshore, where it accounts for more smog-forming nitrogen oxide in our air than all of the cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes and industrial engines in the county combined, says Dave Van Mullem, director of the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District. Local air quality doesn’t meet state health standards for ozone, a colorless gas that can worsen asthma and cause lung damage. Van Mullem says cargo ships in the Channel are a main culprit.

“It’s something we’ve always strived for—to reduce pollution from the major oceangoing ships transiting our Channel,” Van Mullem says. “It seems like enough is enough. Let’s make some progress on this.”

Unfortunately, the Air Pollution Control District has no power to force the ships to clean up their act. Van Mullem’s agency has authority over stationary sources of smog, such as gas stations and oil-drilling rigs, but not moving vehicles. Moreover, most of the container ships are foreign flagged and the shipping lanes are in state and federal waters, where the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations, oversees ship safety and pollution control and prevention.

Whales, on the other hand, might have the juice the county lacks.

Besides dirty air, West Coast shipping is creating a potentially big problem for the biggest creatures on Earth. It’s viewed as a serious threat to blue whales, an endangered species that congregates in the Channel this time of year, perilously close to the shipping lanes. The blues gather here in the summer to feed on abundant krill, a tiny crustacean, near the Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands. The area has the largest seasonal population of blues in the world.

Ever since the summer of 2007, when four blue whales and an aborted calf washed ashore in Southern California after being struck and killed by ships, officials at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the U.S. Coast Guard have been trying—and failing—to persuade ship captains to slow down in the Channel between May and November. In addition to the blues, endangered humpbacks and fin whales return to the Channel this time of year to feed on krill.

But the voluntary slowdown has been a flop, with less than 1 percent of captains participating, says Sean Hastings of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On average, he says, as many as three dead whales wash ashore in the region every year after being struck by ships, and many more may sink to the bottom or drift out to sea. So far, there’s no technology to help a captain spot a whale under the bow of a ship that’s four stories high and several football fields long. Last winter, a dead fin whale on the bow of a container ship was not discovered until it entered Los Angeles Harbor. For reasons biologists have yet to figure out, whales don’t try to get out of the way of approaching ships and may even be drawn to them.

“This is the No. 1 priority for the sanctuary program, not just in the Channel Islands, but along the West Coast,” Hastings says. “What concerns me is that for every whale we find to be ship-struck, there are likely five or 10 more that go undetected. That keeps me up at night.”

Hastings and Van Mullem have a new idea: They want to dangle a carrot and bribe the ships to slow down. At reduced speeds, Van Mullem says, ship engines run more efficiently and burn much less fuel, dramatically reducing smokestack pollution. Also, although whales might still get hit at slower speeds, Hastings says, they’d have a better chance of surviving.

Now, in partnership with the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary and the Environmental Defense Center, the Air Pollution Control District is lobbying the State of California for more than $6 million per year for a pilot “vessel speed-reduction incentive program.” The money would come from the state’s new Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, created under a cap-and-trade law that requires polluters on land to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Though the shipping incentives plan could be out of luck this year because Gov. Jerry Brown wants to borrow $500 million from the cap-and-trade fund to balance the budget, Van Mullem is not giving up.

“Do we have a chance still? Yes, we do,” he says. “There is a possibility we can still come out as a line item in the budget. Do we have a lot of hope? Probably not this time around. But it’s a project that will succeed. It’s just a matter of when.”

A switch to “slow steaming,” as the industry calls it, means it would take ships about 11 hours instead of seven to get through the Channel, traveling at speeds of 14 mph instead of the current 21 mph. Based on an estimated 90 percent participation rate by 2020, county officials say, slow steaming would slash emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and emissions of nitrogen oxide by 50 percent.

This isn’t the first time the county’s Air Pollution Control District has sought help with container-ship pollution. Beginning in the early 1990s, Van Mullem’s predecessors repeatedly petitioned the state and federal governments, seeking stricter rules for fuels and engines on ships plying the Channel. They even sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—twice. Partly in response to these efforts, clean air regulations are now tightening for shipping. But Van Mullem says it could take more than 10 years for fleets to fully upgrade. So he’s not about to give up now.

“Marine shipping is the last of the low-hanging fruit for improving our air quality,” he says. “We have a chance to make this work and obtain revenues to slow ships down. We are definitely gaining momentum, and we’re not going to quit trying.”

Paying ships to slow down for cleaner air is not a new idea. According to the Air Pollution Control District, more than 90 percent of ship captains are having no trouble slowing down along a 20-mile stretch in and out of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles—the nation’s busiest—in return for rebates and dockage fee discounts.

Other groups supporting the slow-ships incentives plan are the U.S. Navy, California Coastal Commission, City of Santa Barbara, Ocean Conservancy, Community Environmental Council, California Ocean Protection Council and Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which includes the Port of Oakland. Maersk Line, the world’s largest container ship company, also favors an incentives plan. Nearly 300 people have emailed the state Air Resources Board in support, too, citing its potential benefits for climate change, air quality and whale protection.

On June 1, in a bid to help protect the whales, the International Maritime Organization moved the Channel shipping lane nearest to the islands north by a mile, closer to the mainland and farther away from the underwater shelf, where blue whales feed.

“We think moving the lane is going to help, but it’s not going to eradicate the risk,” says Hastings. “We are still interested in incentivizing ships to slow down.”

As usual, Hastings will fly over the Channel this summer looking for whales in or near the shipping lanes. Also, as usual, the U.S. Coast Guard has emailed an advisory to all mariners in the Channel, recommending that they “exercise caution and reduce speed” from May to November. The message notes that it is a federal crime to kill or injure a blue, humpback or fin whale. Hastings’s agency will also provide ships with an educational poster to help their crews be more “whale aware.”

But it’ll take more than awareness to save these whales. Worldwide, the population of blue whales is estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000—about 5 percent of pre-whaling levels. The population of between 1,500 and 2,000 blue whales in the eastern part of the Northern Pacific Ocean, including the West Coast of the U.S., is not increasing, says John Calambokidis, an Olympia, Washington-based biologist who has studied whales for 25 years. The blues may be more vulnerable than other species to collisions with ships because they do not maneuver quickly, he says. He’s even seen them come to the surface when ships are in the vicinity.

Blue whales tend to dive deep during the day to feed, then rest close to the surface at night, drifting across the shipping lanes when the ships are least likely to see them, Calambokidis says.

“In my mind, shipping off the West Coast is the greatest threat to blue whales,” Calambokidis says.

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