Maersk Line Switches to Low-Sulfur Fuel to Clear Gulf Air

Maersk Line recently conducted the first ever "fuel switch" demonstration on a container ship in the Gulf of Mexico as the result of a partnership between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Port of Houston Authority and Maersk Line.

"We at EPA are excited that the Port of Houston Authority and Maersk Line chose to show their commitment to environmental quality and public health by executing this innovative project," says Michelle DePass, assistant administrator for International Affairs at EPA. "We look forward to finding ways in which we can continue to partner into the future."

Switching from high-sulfur fuel to low-sulfur fuel has been proven as an effective means of reducing air emissions near land and will likely have a positive impact on public health in the affected U.S. coastal areas as it will decrease the impact of shipping emissions of particulate matter. EPA estimates that fuel switching will result in reducing local air pollution and its burden on public health by producing more than a 95 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide (SOx) and an 85 percent reduction in fine particulate matter (PM).

This specific project was designed to be an example of the effectiveness of using lower-sulfur fuels in ocean-going vessels and will calculate and report the air pollutant emissions reductions achieved by switching from high to lower sulfur marine fuel. The partnership is optimistic that there will be significant emission reductions in ports in the Gulf of Mexico where the test vessel will dock – the Port of Houston and the Port of Progreso, Mexico.

The fuel switching demonstration was carried out on the Maersk Roubaix, a smaller vessel that can carry 1,118 twenty-foot shipping containers. This is typical of the container ships that routinely operate between the U.S. and Mexico.

The Roubaix's propulsion engine and auxiliary engines normally run on bunker fuel with a sulfur content of 2.7 percent. In this demonstration, a low-sulfur (0.1 percent) distillate marine diesel fuel will be used within 24 nautical miles of the U.S. and Mexican coastlines as the ship approaches each port. This is likely to greatly reduce SOx and PM emissions in both areas.

In an effort to better protect our coastal and inland areas from ship air pollution, the United States and Canada have applied to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to establish an Emission Control Area (ECA). By 2015, this U.S.-Canada ECA will require lower sulfur fuels be used when ships are in waters within 200 nautical miles of the U.S. or Canadian Pacific, Atlantic, or Gulf coasts, the eight main Hawaiian Islands, and the southeast coast of Alaska. All ships operating in the designated ECA will be required to use engines that meet the most advanced technology requirements for NOx emission controls as of 2016, and to use 0.1 percent sulfur marine fuels (fuel with sulfur content at or below 1,000 ppm) as of 2015.

Mexico has not yet applied to establish an ECA but has expressed interest in participating. This project will also help Mexico demonstrate the environmental benefits of joining the ECA.

"We support the U.S. EPA's ECA proposal to IMO, and so are pleased to work with U.S. EPA and the Port of Houston Authority to demonstrate fuel switching in the Gulf," said Lee Kindberg, Ph.D., Maersk's Environmental director for North America. "Using cleaner fuel is the fastest way for a vessel to reduce its environmental impact. Maersk vessels have voluntarily demonstrated the effectiveness of a fuel switch in over 1,200 port calls on the West Coast since March 2006. International adoption of an ECA reduces environmental impact significantly while ensuring a level playing field for all competitors."

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