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Cruise Emission Agitation

Politics appears to have triumphed over common sense at Sydney’s White Bay cruise terminal, as Bruce Piper writes.

Princess Cruises Ships in New ZealandBy Bruce Piper

Politics appears to have triumphed over common sense at Sydney’s White Bay cruise terminal, where a last minute lobbying effort by local residents against cruise ship pollution led to a commitment by state premier Mike Baird to ban high-sulphur fuels.

The terminal is adjacent to the environmentally-aware state seat of Balmain, where Baird had been hoping – ultimately unsuccessfully – to snatch power from incumbent Greens MP Jamie Parker.

Baird reacted swiftly after the powerful radio shock jock Alan Jones joined a chorus of complaints about ships docked at White Bay using low quality “bunker” fuel to power their generators, with a campaign website claiming that “literally tonnes of foul-smelling, toxic emissions are being dumped on the community from the heavy polluting cruise ships”. The issue also received widespread coverage on evening TV news bulletins, with calls for an on-shore power source which would mean the ships could turn off their engines while docked.

Ultimately politics won, with the now re-elected state government making a commitment to a 0.1% maximum sulphur content for cruise ships in Sydney Harbour, down from the current 3.5% and just one tenth of the 1% allowable for ships operating within 200 nautical miles of the US and Canada.

However the lobbying campaign’s anti-cruise ship claims, and the knee-jerk proposal to reduce the maximum allowable sulphur content of the fuel, need to be examined in the cold hard light of day.

Firstly, although much is made of the huge growth of the global cruise industry, passenger cruise ships only comprise a tiny proportion of the worldwide shipping fleet. Sydney Harbour, as a major trading port, is frequented by dozens of cargo vessels which also presumably release high levels of emissions.

Although the 0.1% requirement is being imposed on the cruise shipping sector, the government has only said it will “look at” emissions from other types of shipping, which will be “considered for further regulation”.

During the lobbying campaign, a number of spokespeople for fuel suppliers were quoted about the easy availability in Sydney of the low sulphur-content fuel. However another key issue is that in most cases ships steaming into Sydney would need to be supplied with the special fuel at the port prior to their arrival.

That would mean that they might need to fill up with the low-sulphur oil somewhere far out in the Pacific, or at a remote Australian regional port where it’s much less likely to be available. Not impossible, but not as easy as some pundits would suggest.

Another suggestion was that the government provide the ability for ships to utilise on-shore power while docked at White Bay. While this would seem to be a logical solution, it’s not a particularly simple one to implement. By their very nature, cruise ships have independent power systems which often run on different voltages and frequencies to local Australian power supplies.

“It’s not like you can just run an extension lead out to the ship from a big power point,” said one expert. Quite apart from the technical difficulties, the power requirement for a cruise ship would require a massive infrastructure investment in additional poles and wires by the government along with more electricity, something which would also offend the green sensibilities of the inner-city voters in Balmain.

The government dodged this issue by confirming that a “detailed cost-benefit analysis” of installing ship-to-shore power at each of the major NSW shipping ports is currently underway and will be completed in 2015.

Nobody will be surprised when the outcome of this probe reveals that it will be way too expensive to implement.
Sydney Harbour certainly isn’t the first port where these issues have been raised, and the global shipping industry has for some time been working on a plan to mitigate the problem of emissions while sitting at the dock. Despite the accusations made against the cruise industry, passenger shipping is in fact at the forefront of reducing emissions on a global basis.

Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has a concerted program which encourages member lines to cut their impact on the environment, and major operators including Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean have already committed to massive refurbishment programs for their fleets which include the installation of exhaust gas “scrubbers” to reduce air pollution.

Some in the industry see the unilateral move to clamp down on cruise ships at White Bay as nothing more than populism, saying Australia would be better to push for lower global standards rather than making cruise ships jump through extra hoops when operating here.

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