MEPs’ push for tougher marine fuels rules in doubt

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Efforts by MEPs to extend restrictions on sulphur-emitting fuels in cargo and passenger ships is shaping up to be the most contested part of emerging EU legislation to meet international obligations on reducing a leading source of coastal pollution.

The European Parliament’s environment committee prepared to vote today (16 February) on amendments to a 1999 directive that would slash emissions of sulphur dioxide, a noxious pollutant that is blamed on more than 50,000 premature deaths per year in the EU.

Europe must revamp the directive to meet International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards, which require fuels to lower sulphur content to less than 0.1%  by 2015 in the heavily travelled Baltic and North Seas and English Channel compared with the 3.5% allowed on the open seas.

But a  parliamentary proposal backed by the Greens and some coastal countries would go even further, aiming to apply the same standards in all EU territorial waters within 12 nautical miles from their coasts.

“The value of human life is the same in Mediterranean region as of the coasts of the North Sea and Baltic Sea,” said Satu Hassi (Greens), a Finnish member of Parliament who wrote the environment committee’s report on the marine fuels issue.

Hassi said in an interview ahead of the committee vote that there is strong support for reducing sulphur pollutants from the heavy fuels that drive ships, but acknowledged there are differences over imposing more ambitious rules.

A compromise proposal seeks to create sulphur emission control areas beyond the IMO rules while giving shippers some leeway by allowing them to continue burning fuels with higher sulphur content if they take mitigation steps, such as installing smokestack scrubbers.

“Political groups that represent the majority have signed this compromise, but of course there might be members who vote differently compared to the group position, so I cannot be certain if this is adopted or not,” Hassi said.

The European Commission presented recommended amendments in July 2011, but the environment committee proposed a number of changes, including requiring passengers ships to meet the same standards as cargo vessels by 2015, five years earlier than what the EU executive suggested. 

Same standards everywhere

The International Chamber of Shipping, which represents 80% of the global merchant fleet, backs reductions in emissions but contends that the EU should stick to the IMO standard so European shippers do not suffer a competitive disadvantage. Officials of the chamber were not available yesterday (15 December) to comment on the legislation.

The European Sea Ports Organisation in November said standards mean little if adequate supplies of low-sulphur fuel are not commercially available.

At the environment ministerial Council meeting on 19 December, some EU countries expressed concern about sufficient supplies of low-sulphur fuels. Others raised objections to extending the rules outside the framework of the IMO – meaning MEPs could face difficulty in imposing more stringent standards.

Hassi has acknowledged that fuel supply is a legitimate concern. Most ships burn heavy fuel that is less refined, higher in sulphur content, and therefore less costly.

As a result, MEPs have called for giving leeway to companies that instal smokestack scrubbers or mix in clearner-burning liquefied natural gas, and want to encourage members states to boost refining capacity and storage for alternative fuels.

Antoine Kedzierski, shipping campaigner at Transport & Environment, said: "Dirty ship fuel contains 2,700 times more sulphur than road fuel; burning this stuff around our coastlines is poisoning our environment and damaging our health.  

"America has led the way on this issue by forcing ships to use low sulphur fuel along practically its entire coastline and imposing substantial penalties for failure to comply.  Why should Europe expect anything less?  The Parliament should ensure all Europeans get the same treatment with a pan-European low sulphur area and equivalent penalties to the US." 



The European Commission in July 2011 proposed amendments to bring the 1999 marine fuels directive into compliance with standards set by a UN body, the International Maritime Organisation.

The IMO regulations – which took effect in 2010 and are designed to cut sulphur dioxide emissions in some of the world’s most congested ports and shipping lanes - apply to Europe’s northern waterways, much of North America and parts of the Caribbean. Ships travelling in the designated maritime emissions areas had to use fuels with a sulphur content of less than 1% by mid-2010, and on the open sea 3.5% by this year.

Those restrictions fall to no more than 0.1% sulphur content by 2015 in the heavily travelled areas and 0.5% in other coastal areas.

The shipping industry supports lower emissions targets but says there are not enough low-sulphur fuels being produced to meet today's needs. Meanwhile, the Roundtable of International Shipping Associations says steady improvements in efficiency, ship design and the development of alternative fuels will lead to more environmentally friendly shipping.

  • 21 May: Scheduled vote in the full European Parliament on amendments the marine fuels directive.

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