Bunker fuel under gun following Bay Area spill
Taking advantage of the spotlight being thrown on the San Francisco Bay fuel oil spill last week that has fouled dozens of beaches and killed local wildlife, a prominent environmental group is now calling for the ban on marine bunker fuel.
The Friends of the Earth launched a petition drive Sunday asking Congress to prohibit the use of marine bunker fuel. The petition comes as San Francisco Bay clean-up efforts continue to deal with the 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel spilled when the 926-foot-long COSCO Busan sideswiped a Bay Bridge tower footing, tearing a 160-foot-long gash in the side of the vessel including two fuel tanks.
Bunker fuel is a viscous liquid that when released into cold water congeals into a sticky material that adheres to anything it comes into contact with including ships, beaches and animals. Used by the international maritime industry primarily for its low cost, it is also one of the least refined of the petroleum fuels and creates more harmful emissions than nearly any other petroleum-based fuel.
Vessels calling in California are now required to use a cleaner version of bunker fuel within 24 miles of the coastline. However most vessels merely keep a small stock of the cleaner fuel on board and run on the dirtier bunker fuel when at sea. The law, which a court has allowed to remain in effect temporarily, is being challenged by the shipping industry after state regulators allegedly failed to follow proper procedure to enact the regulation. Efforts have been under way to impose international standards on marine vessels through the United Nations, but the regulatory process has been slow. Efforts are also under way in Congress to try to institute a law similar to California's nationally.
A petroleum industry report released in September found that switching the shipping industry from bunker fuel to the alternative low-sulfur fuel may not be possible in the near-term. The American Petroleum Institute report studied the state of the bunker fuel refining industry throughout the world and found there is not enough worldwide refining capacity to produce enough low-sulfur fuel for the world's shipping fleet.
The report found that it would likely take the petroleum industry at least five years to make the needed refinery changes and improvements to supply the necessary amount of low-sulfur fuel. The API report also estimated that a worldwide switch to cleaner marine fuel would cost the industry $67 billion by 2012 and $126 billion by 2020, most of which, according to economic experts, would be passed along to consumer in the form of higher prices. ' Keith Higginbotham