New ban on high-sulfur ship fuel = big benefits for people & the planet (if it weren’t for that massive loophole!)

December 23, 2019
Carnival AGM protest in London

The new IMO regulation should be a massive win for public health and the environment. Unfortunately, there is a glaring loophole.

By Kendra Ulrich, Senior Shipping Campaigner at

The shipping industry has a massive pollution problem – and the damage being done isn’t only to the climate.

Each year, ships pump roughly 13% of all global human-activity related sulfur emissions into the air. And the impacts on human health and the environment are staggering.

Breathing sulfur oxide emissions has been linked to a host of health problems, from lung and cardiovascular disease to childhood asthma. It’s estimated that exposure to ship exhaust is responsible for between 60,000 – 400,000 early deaths and millions of cases of childhood asthma each year.

Sulfur air emissions also combine with water in the atmosphere, creating acid rain that acidifies ecosystems and damages agriculture.

The root of the shipping industry’s sulfur problem is that that vast majority of ships burn an oil refinery waste product called heavy fuel oil (HFO) or bunker fuel. It’s the bottom-of-the-barrel sludge that’s left over after other petroleum products are distilled from crude. It’s very high in sulfur – (3.5%!). And because it’s a waste product, shipping companies can buy it dirt cheap and burn it in international waters, releasing massive amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere in the process.

That’s why the new international regulation from the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO) on the sulfur content in marine fuel is such huge news.

As of January 1, 2020, ships will no longer be able to burn fuel with a sulfur content higher than 0.50% outside of existing emissions control areas.

This should be a massive win for public health and the environment.

Unfortunately, there is a glaring loophole that allows ships to comply with the new sulfur cap by using alternative compliance mechanisms, i.e, reducing air sulfur emissions to the level achieved by 0.50% sulfur content fuel. These alternative mechanisms are referred to by the shipping industry as “Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems (EGCS)” or “scrubbers.” Most folks outside the industry refer to them as “emissions cheat systems.”

Cruise industry giant Carnival Corporation led the charge in installing these cheat devices on their ships.

And the vast majority of scrubbers being installed on ships across sectors – including Carnival’s – are “open-loop” scrubbers. This means that the scrubber uses seawater to “wash” sulfur oxides from the exhaust plume. That contaminated wastewater is then minimally treated (usually mixing it with more seawater) before being discharged into the ocean.

Bottom line: ships with these cheat systems installed can still continue to burn ultra-dirty heavy fuel oil.

And concerns about the water pollution these cheat systems create are mounting. Increasing numbers of ports, states, and countries have taken bold action to protect their marine ecosystems by banning the discharge of scrubber wastewater. This includes: Singapore, China, Malaysia, all ports and inland waters in Belgium and Latvia, inland ports and waters in Germany, and Dublin, Waterford, and Cork in Ireland. Norway bans the discharge of scrubber wastewater in its iconic fjords. The Port of Fujairah in the UAE, which is the largest port in the eastern seaboard and the world’s second largest bunkering hub for ships, has also banned the discharge of scrubber effluent. It was joined by the Panama Canal, critical to international trade, which recently banned scrubber wastewater discharges as well. In the U.S., the states of California and Connecticut also do not allow the discharge of scrubber effluent in all State ports and waters.

Clearly, turning an air pollution problem into water pollution that can harm marine life and may contribute to ocean acidification in sensitive coastal ecosystems on heavily trafficked shipping routes is not a solution to the massive environmental and human health issues resulting from fueling ships with one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on earth.

But wait, it gets worse.

In real-world conditions, scrubbers cannot even be relied on to deliver the air pollution reductions for which they are designed.

This shocking revelation came to light after court documents from Carnival’s current probation (for its most recent seven federal felony convictions in the U.S.) were released to the public. In its first year of probation, the documents showed an alarming 32 incidents in which unfiltered heavy fuel oil was burned due to failures of the scrubbers on its ships.

During its second year of probation, the projected number of scrubber failures leading to unfiltered heavy fuel oil being burned on Carnival ships has nearly doubled to 63 incidents.

These violations occurred across Carnival’s brands and locations, with failures noted in multiple vessels of the Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Line, P&O Cruises, Princess Cruises, and Cunard. They occurred in the North American, U.S. Caribbean, and North Sea Emissions Control Areas.

In one particularly egregious incident, a P&O Cruises ship burned heavy fuel oil for 16 hours inside the Icelandic Environmental Protection Zone without an operating scrubber. In another, a Princess Cruises ship burned heavy fuel oil without an operating scrubber inside the North American Emissions Control Area off the coast of the U.S. state of Alaska for nearly seven hours. In addition to the North Sea, Iceland, and Alaska, there were notable incidents of failures that led to hours-long violations of burning heavy fuel oil without a scrubber inside the Emissions Control Areas in Norway and Canada – with a raft of other shorter incidents reported across brands, ships, and oceans.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Carnival or cruise ships that are now enthusiastically installing scrubbers so that they can continue to burn dirt-cheap, ultra-dirty heavy fuel oil. Other maritime sectors are following suit. That means that if the scrubber loophole is not closed, there will be increasing numbers of ships operating globally with this same unreliable equipment installed – and prone to similar failures. The cumulative air pollution impacts of many ships suffering similar issues could have enormous human health and environmental costs.

It is past time for the International Maritime Organization to ensure its new high-sulfur fuel ban has its intended effect – protecting human health and the marine environment.

That’s why we are calling on the IMO to impose an immediate moratorium on the use of scrubbers and to close this loophole that puts people and the planet at serious risk.