Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Oberstar, Obey team up to push fuel exemption for Great Lake freight vessels

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To the chagrin of clean air groups, Democratic Reps.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To the chagrin of clean air groups, Democratic Reps. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota and Dave Obey of Wisconsin announced agreement today on a measure that would exempt some of the Great Lakes freight vessels from a proposed Environmental Protection Agency rule that aims to reduce sulfur emissions.

The measure, which is expected to be offered as an amendment this week when the conference committee report on the Interior Appropriations bill comes to the House floor for a final vote, would essentially act as a legislative block on a portion of the agency’s proposed regulations.

Both the House and the Senate are expected to accept the language.

“Unfortunately, the EPA did not look at how the proposed rule would impact the Great Lakes region,” Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said in a statement. “Shipping on the Great Lakes accounts for a small fraction of the pollution caused by the maritime industry, but it handles half of all of the taconite used in domestic steel production. Increasing the costs of Great Lakes shipping will drive up the price of American steel products, jeopardizing our economic recovery.”

The proposed EPA rule would have required that all large ships operating in U.S. waters and in defined coastal areas use a lower-sulfur fuel by 2012.

But Oberstar and other members of the Great Lakes delegation argued that the rule would have wreaked havoc on the Great Lakes economy.

Lower-sulfur fuel is about 70 percent more expensive than the fuel large ships now use, according to industry experts. In addition, about a quarter of the cargo-moving ships on the Great Lakes have engines that cannot run on the lower-sulfur fuel. Engine upgrades cost about $22 million each.

“The goals of clean air and a strong economy are not mutually exclusive,” Oberstar said. “This deal allows the economic recovery to continue on Minnesota’s Iron Range by ensuring that Great Lakes shipping is not unfairly disadvantaged by new EPA rules.”

The language to be included in the appropriations bill would exempt the Great Lakes steamships from the new regulations. It would also allow Great Lakes diesel ships to apply for “economic hardship” waivers.
In addition, the language would advise the EPA to evaluate the economic impact of the final rule on the Great Lakes carriers, and issue a report within six months.

“This is just plain common sense,” Obey said in a statement. “I’m glad that we’ve been able to bring the plight of workers and businesses in places like Superior and the Great Lakes region to the attention of the bureaucrats at the EPA so that we get a more rational and balanced approach to dealing with our nation’s economic and environmental challenges.”

But, Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, disagreed.

Calling it a “special interest” deal, O’Donnell said in a statement on Tuesday that the exemptions and waivers would mean that “people along the Great Lakes will continue to breathe the foul air caused by these filthy ships, whose owners have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress in recent months.”

“The irony here is that the EPA has long shown itself to be sensitive and reasonable to comments made on rule proposals involving diesel emissions and other fuel issues,” O’Donnell said. “There was no need for Congress to meddle in this matter behind closed doors.”

As of this evening, it remained unclear where the EPA stood on the matter.

The EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee — a stakeholder advisory group — previously told the agency not to change the proposed rule to allow for geographic exemptions.

Instead, the group, made up of state and local representatives, engine manufacturers, automakers, refiners, public health experts and environmental organizations, unanimously recommended that the EPA carry out its emissions proposal and “decline requests for any geographic exemptions including, but not limited to, the Great Lakes.”