Global maritime decarbonisation: the state of play

In the second of our surveys of regional decarbonisation activity, contributing editor Mark Williams turns his focus from the EU to the US. 

Maritime Decarbonisation Policy and Activity in the United States

A Contradiction in Terms?

What’s the point, some readers may ask, of an article covering US policy action on decarbonisation? Surely under President Trump, most of America’s environmental legislation has gone up in smoke?

It is true to say that President Trump has made some high-profile decisions like withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change.  He has also rolled back policies like the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that enforce ever greater efficiency on passenger and freight road vehicle engines. Carbon dioxide emission standards for power plants have been relaxed. According to the New York Times (no ally of Trump), 70 environmental regulations have been undone by the current administration, with another 30 in the process of being unwound.

For the moment, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act remains in place. This Act enshrines the principle that all branches of government consider the environmental consequences of any federal action. It is considered to be the cornerstone of US environmental legislation and policy in modern times.

With regard to maritime affairs, the one regulation that has been withdrawn was to revoke former President Obama’s 2010  Executive Order to establish a council to promote conservation and sustainability in America’s Great Lakes and ocean waters and replacing its 20-plus departments and committees with one National Ocean Policy Committee.  In a further withdrawal of Obama-era policies, President Trump has legislated the opening up of US offshore waters to oil and gas drilling, in the face of opposition from some littoral states.

Marad Sails Bravely On

When it comes to weaning the global merchant fleet off hydrocarbons, President Trump has been mute for his entire period in office, leaving previous structures – and US representation at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – in place.  Crucially, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90) remains in place. It created a comprehensive prevention, response, liability, and compensation regime to deal with oil pollution to US navigable waters. OPA90 greatly increased federal oversight of maritime oil transportation. It also led to a rise in the number of oil tankers held by independent ship owners as oil companies outsourced on the reputational, as well as the capital risk, of owning ships.

Currently, the US approach to decarbonising shipping is led by the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (Marad).  Reporting to Marad’s Associate Administrator for Environment and Compliance, the Office of Environment (OE) has three primary functions.

  1. Environmental support to Marad, assisting with applying environmental laws, standards, regulations, presidential Executive Orders, national environmental policy acts, reviews and evaluations. Also support for the US Port and Intermodal Infrastructure Program and America’s Marine Highway Program.
  2. Supporting innovation in marine transportation environmental issues.
  3. Advising Marad and the Department of Transport on domestic and international environmental and energy policies affecting marine transportation, specifically under the terms of the 1969 NEPA.

The OE assists with Marad’s program to reduce its own carbon footprint including energy conservation studies for the nation’s Ready Reserve Force Fleet.

Staff members from the OE serve as technical experts in the US delegation to the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), also advising the Department of State, the Coast Guard and other federal agencies on ‘appropriate approaches to achieving economically sound measures to improve environmental stewardship.’

The OE also provides subject matter exports to the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) Technical Committee for ships and marine technology.

Dude, Where’s My Hydrogen Car / Truck / Boat / Ferry?

Marad runs the Maritime Environmental and Technical Assistance Programme (META).  This program ‘promotes the research, demonstration, and development of emerging technologies, practices, and processes that improve maritime industrial environmental sustainability’. Projects include vessel and port air emissions, biofuels, fuel cells, LNG, emission reduction technology, hybrid and batteries, and energy efficiency technologies and autonomous systems for environmental application.  

Marad has been working on maritime applications of fuel cells, and the development of standards, regulations, and protocols for their use, since 2014. It has funded research into biogas and LNG, in particular its use as a ship fuel in the Great Lakes, inland waterways and ocean shipping, noting that a number of US-based shipping companies have opted to use LNG bunkers in some of their vessels. TOTE is perhaps the most widely known, running two LNG ships in the Caribbean-US trades.

Marad ran a Marine Hi-Power Battery Workshop as long ago as December 2016 in which battery technology, standards and application guidelines were discussed, including the use of batteries for propulsion and for auxiliary energy generation. You can still view the session videos via its website.

In 2018 Marad contributed to a feasibility study for hydrogen fuel cells for ferries, reported in the paper, ‘Optimization of Zero Emission Hydrogen Fuel Cell Ferry Design, With Comparisons to the SF-BREEZE’ by JW Pratt and LE Klebanoff. The paper showed that current hydrogen fuel cell technology could feasibly be used in passenger ferries, especially for larger, slower vessels with lower energy requirements.

Indeed, US research into maritime applications of fuel cells has been ongoing for decades. The US Navy Interagency Working Group Navy Shipboard Fuel Cell Program started work in 1997. Fuel Cells have been fitted to US submarines for years.  ABS published its paper ‘Fuel Cells – A New Wave of Marine Power Technology’ in December 2003, months after President George W Bush mentioned their ‘incredible opportunity’ to reduce dependence on imported oil in that year’s State of the Union address.  He also announced a $1.3 billion research program ‘so that America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen powered automobiles.’ 2003 was of course before shale oil threw global energy markets a low-cost hydrocarbon curveball.

In March 2020, All American Marine (AAM) reported it had been awarded a contract to build America’s first newbuild commercial hydrogen fuel cell ferry. The vessel had been partially constructed at Bay Ship & Yacht shipyard in Alameda, then AAM was selected to complete the ship with its hydrogen fuel cell powerplant. The project was funded by private capital from SW/TCH Maritime, an investment platform focused on building fuel cell powered passenger vessels. $3 million of funding came from the California Climate investment initiative, a state funded program to invest in projects to reduce GHG emissions. 

Call Out the Coast Guard!

The US Coast Guard provides America’s Head of Delegation to the IMO MEPC and Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), a position currently held by Mr Jeffrey G. Lantz who also represents the US position on a range of maritime environmental issues including GHG emissions. Mr Lantz is an ex-Chairman of the IMO’s Council, its second highest governing body.  Mr Lantz retired with the rank of Captain from the US Coast Guard in 2001, having graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1974. Mr Lantz is on record in 2018 as saying that the US ‘views the establishment of an absolute [CO2] reduction target as premature.’

Like aviation, shipping is a difficult candidate for decarbonisation, and Mr Lantz’s comments from 2018 reflect that difficulty. The US however has experience of developing an emissions to air policy for shipping and of enforcing an emissions control regime, being one of the few countries in the world to run an Emissions Control Area (ECA). The US Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and Marad have developed a strong working relationship in policing and enforcing the ECA. The US Coast Guard performs over 9,500 inspections every year, all of which include elements of testing for MARPOL Annex VI compliance. Ships that burn VLSFO, or which run on non-hydrocarbon fuels, will be exempt from the emissions portion of future inspections, according to recent guidance.

From Little Acorns

There is a great deal of research and development happening in the US with regard to decarbonising the economy.  Intact government departments at federal and state level are active in the decarbonisation debate. Classification societies, the Chamber of Shipping, ship yards and shipping companies themselves recognise that the time will come when petroleum products no longer fuel maritime transport.

Perhaps the progress of the alternatives in the US has been delayed by the advent and then the global impact of shale oil and gas, which made light, sweet (and therefore relatively clean) hydrocarbons much cheaper than their imported forebears, and converted the US from the world’s biggest oil importer to an oil and gas exporter.  The impacts of Coronavirus, a slump in oil demand and falling hydrocarbon prices have made a big impression on investors seeking long-term value. Perhaps the time has come for the US to unleash its vast institutional, commercial, and federal firepower to invest in the alternatives to oil.  Bill Elrick, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, says, ‘a hydrogen society cannot be fully realised throughout the US unless we have a partnership of government, investors and the private sector, each of which will play a unique and significant role.’  Will Uncle Sam step up to the plate? Time will tell.

Mark Williams

Mark Williams