Compass: EPA can ease burden on Alaska shipping, still have cleaner air

The Port of Anchorage is more to Alaska than a shipping facility: It's a lifeline. A vital connection between the state and the rest of the world, Anchorage is responsible for "90 percent of the consumer goods for 85 percent of Alaska," according to figures released by the port. Fuel, food, construction materials, cars and other essentials all first enter Alaska through Anchorage. However, if a new rule from the EPA is implemented as planned, the costs of shipping to Alaska, and thus the costs of everything that's shipped into Alaska, are set to rise. This new regulation could prove disastrous for the state and its shipping industry.

In an effort to ostensibly improve coastal air quality and limit sulfur dioxide emissions, the EPA is introducing new fuel standards for ships traveling within the 200 nautical miles (nm) of the U.S. coast that comprise the North American Emission Control Area (NA-ECA). Beginning in 2015, ships will be required to use fuel containing only 0.1 percent sulfur while traveling within the ECA. Currently, the EPA only requires ships to use 1 percent sulfur fuel inside the ECA's boundaries. Working for cleaner air is a desirable and worthwhile goal; Alaskans especially should work to maintain the state's marine environment and pristine wilderness. But the EPA's current plan is inefficient, ineffective and counterproductive.

The new emissions requirement is a classic example of the "law of unintended consequences" that can result from a one-size-fits-all environmental policy. The policy is clearly designed with transoceanic vessels in mind but puts another method of shipping vital to Alaska, short sea shipping, at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike larger, long-distance ships, short sea shipping is confined to short, coastal routes, most, if not all, of which are within 200 nautical miles of shore.

For a ship traveling from the Lower 48 states to China, complying with the new standard won't be difficult, as the rule only affects a small fraction of its voyage. But a ship traveling into Anchorage from Tacoma, one of the most common departure points for ships entering the port, will see a dramatic spike in its fuel costs, as almost its entire voyage will take place inside the ECA. The impacts will reverberate far beyond the port. Because so much of what we use here in Alaska arrives by ship from somewhere else, such a sharp increase in the cost of transportation may eventually result in higher prices for many everyday items.

Many might conclude that this would be a reasonable burden if it were the only way to meet the EPA's air quality goals. But there is evidence to suggest that it isn't. The short sea shipping industry commissioned a study on the effect of short sea shipping vessels on coastal air quality. They found that, once a short sea ship was 50 nautical miles offshore, its influence on shoreside air quality was almost undetectable. If the EPA were to adjust its policy accordingly, so that smaller short sea ships only had to use 0.1 percent sulfur fuel within 50 nautical miles of shore instead of 200, it could achieve its desired results at only a fraction of the cost.

Ensuring that federal regulations make economic as well as environmental sense is not just important for the short sea shipping industry. In a state where so much of what we consume on a daily basis arrives via ship, it's an issue that should concern all Alaskans. Were the EPA to modify its new rule to better reflect the realities of short sea shipping, it will be possible to still have cleaner emissions standards but without creating additional economic hardship.

Scott Jones is CEO of Alaska Maritime Agencies, which has offices in six Alaska locations, including Anchorage, serving owners and operators of cargo and passenger vessels throughout the 47,000 miles of Alaska coastline.