By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
HERE’S A PUZZLE FOR ANYONE looking to breathe cleaner air in California: Why would the world’s largest shipping conglomerate — one with facilities in more than 100 cities, 35,000 employees and a container ship so big its paint alone weighs as much as 100 elephants — offer to slash its emissions at the Port of Los Angeles? More to the point, why would that shipping company act in defiance of other shipping lines girding up to fight the state air board over less drastic emissions cuts?
Those were the unanswered questions looming over a press conference held May 26 at Pier 400 on A.P. Moller–Maersk’s bustling and high-tech container terminal, where digital overhead signs pointed attendees in the proper direction, sparkling plate-glass windows offered an impressive view of Maersk’s terminal operations at work, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — reveling as always in his mayorness — wore a mint-green tie. (His aides insisted it wasn’t in keeping with any environmental theme. “He’s meeting with [Mexican President Vicente] Fox later,” one of them told me, as we watched the beaming mayor load his snack plate with watermelon while confiding a tip to a Los Angeles Times reporter. “They were worried that I was pro-labor,” I heard him whisper.) Outside the third-floor boardroom, a security guard told me he’d worked in five terminals, and Maersk was “the cleanest, safest and most photogenic.” Once in a while, he admitted, “rats chew through the fiber” and cause electrical problems. Other than that, Pier 400 is a marvel.
The press conference, attended by state and local leaders as well as Maersk executives, had been convened to praise the company for its decision to switch from dirty bunker fuel — the bottom-of-the-barrel crud that fuels most ships — to a lower-sulfur diesel formula within 24 nautical miles of California’s ports. It improves significantly on the rule the Air Resources Board (ARB) announced last December — the one that other shipping companies have been thinking about fighting in court. The ARB rule, out for public comment until June 16, requires only that ships change to cleaner-burning fuel in their auxiliary engines, which power navigational systems and communication and other onboard equipment; Maersk has volunteered to use the fuel even in main propulsion engines.
Maersk says the new fuel will cost twice as much per gallon, but using it will reduce its fleet’s output of toxic particulate matter — the cancer-causing stuff that lodges in human lungs — by more than 70 percent and sulfur dioxide by more than 90 percent. And while Maersk is still a long way from the next step — plugging its ships into shore-side electricity at berth, or “cold ironing” — clean-air advocates at the event were unreservedly happy about Maersk’s decision. “The bottom line is that they’re stepping up,” said the Coalition for Clean Air’s Martin Schlageter. “They’re a dominant force in this industry, and they’re saying to everyone else, ‘You guys play catch-up while regulatory agencies and environmentalists are on your ass.’?”
What makes Maersk’s new plan especially important is that it may serve to nullify some of the industry’s legal challenges to the air board’s auxiliary-engine rule. First practiced on the S-type container ship Sine Maersk outside of Los Angeles on the last day in March, the fuel switch contradicts by example at least two of the shipping industry’s complaints: that low-sulfur fuel is too hard to find and changing fuels at sea isn’t safe.
“We had concerns about availability of low-sulfur fuel,” Maersk’s safety expert, Jim Flanagan, told me, “but we now have sources in Los Angeles and Oakland, and we dedicate a tank on each ship to that fuel,” a retrofit that runs close to $300,000 per ship. “But we have no concerns about safety. If we did, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
It’s also unlikely that the shipping behemoth, which paid a $500,000 fine last fall for falsifying waste-oil disposal records, would have volunteered for the fuel switch had increasingly strict international regulations and local controversy not combined to make “growing cleaner and greener,” as the mayor put it, a good business move globally and locally, where Maersk could stand to improve its karma. When the Port of Los Angeles opened the $340 million, 484-acre Pier 400 in 2002 for the shipping company it wooed away from Long Beach, San Pedro and Wilmington residents raised a fuss over both the size of the project and the terms of the deal. One of them, Stanley Mosler, has sued on the grounds that the city of Los Angeles spent $108 million in federal funds dedicated to constructing a hazardous-facilities terminal on Maersk’s container terminal, a redirection of funds Mosler has argued breaks the law. His lawsuit is asking for $3.6 billion in damages.
T.L. Garrett of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association acknowledges that new laws regulating emissions in Western Europe and the Baltic, which went into effect in May, might have had something to do with Maersk’s initiative, as might increased pressure from California regulators. “This way they maintain some control over what they’re doing instead of being dictated to,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘Let us get our solution out there, and gain acceptance for our solution’?” before someone comes along and mandates a solution “[without] understanding the variety and variability in the shipping industry.”