Restricting Maritime Pollution

Aug 12 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Environment

Isadora Blachman-Biatch, London

On 1 August 2011, new amendments to the MARPOL 73/78 convention under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) came into force. The new amendments which were signed on the 26 March 2010 affect both annexes I and VI of the MARPOL 73/78 convention, whose name is shorthand for the ‘International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as modified by the Protocol of 1978’. The amended annexes regulate maritime activities with the aim of preventing crude oil pollution and reducing air pollution.

The new amendments apply to any ships that fly the flag of a party to the convention or operate under the authority of a party to the convention, as per article 3. State parties to an annex (since not all states are party to all annexes) will need to adapt their national laws to incorporate these new regulations, which ensures that there is a national enforcement authority that can inspect ships and help enforce compliance with the relevant convention provisions. Currently, 150 states (representing over 99% of global shipping tonnage) are party to annex I while 65 states are party to annex VI. For more information about the adherence of individual states, visit the IMO website).

The new amendments to annex I of the MARPOL convention introduced a ninth chapter on the ‘Special Requirements for the Use or Carriage of Oils in the Antarctic Area’, where the Antarctica area is defined as “the sea south of latitude 60 degrees south.” The new chapter notes that ships may no longer use heavy oil fuel in the Antarctic area. ‘Heavy oil fuel’ is defined in article 43 of the MARPOL convention as crude oils, here defined as oils that have a density at 15°C which is higher than 900 kg/m3, or other oils that have a density at 15⁰C higher than 900kg/m3 or a kinematic viscosity at 50°C higher than 180mm2/s, as well as bitumen, tar and their emulsions. These heavy fuel oils are considered to be highly hazardous to the Antarctic environment as any spill would break down extremely slowly in such cold conditions, and changes to the Antarctic climate will makes potential clean-up operation particularly hazardous. According to the UN News Center the new regulations mean that ships using lower grade fuels will have to switch to higher grade fuel types while they are in the Antarctic region. However, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) also notes that vessels “engaged in securing the safety of ships or in a search-and rescue operation” are exempt from this rule.

The new amendments to annex VI of the MARPOL convention aim to curb the emission of air pollutants by establishing a North American Emission Control Area (ECA). Ships within this area will have to adhere to more stringent controls on the emission of sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) than the current global standard. The new amendments to Annex VI will enter into force 12 months after 1 August 2012, when the ECA is formally established. At present there are two existing ECAs, one in the Baltic Sea, and the other in the North Sea, both of which regulate SOx emissions. Preliminary results from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggest that the ECAs help increase air quality thereby providing health benefits which, according to the EPA, outweigh the economic impact associated with an ECA. Recognising that ship emissions are a significant concern, and are only expected to get worse without further action, the US EPA had been pursuing the establishment of a North American ECA to improve national air quality as a part of the EPA’s three-part program to address shipping emissions.

The MARPOL convention creates a clear standard of expected behaviour for parties to the treaty, but some environmental groups such as Good Planet have criticised its monitoring and enforcement measures, arguing that the convention serves mainly as a preventive measure, and pointing out that other legally-binding measures on liability and compensation, rather than nationally-implemented MARPOL convention measures, are more often turned to in the event of an obvious violation. Being a preventive measure however is not necessarily a weakness; the MARPOL convention contains detailed requirements on national implementation and reporting, and also contains a monitoring system based on certificates and ship inspections, as per article 5, section 2, which, if properly checked by the appropriate authorities can be an effective way to identify, penalize, and ultimately deter violations (see for example the verification procedure described here). However, the effectiveness of this national verification has been called into question by environmental groups such as Salt Line, and a number of states have not ratified the convention because of the costs associated with national implementation.

It is interesting to note that the MARPOL convention contains important measures for multilateral cooperative verification. Any ship flying the flag of a state party inside any port or terminal of another party may be subject to inspection in order to verify adherence to the convention. Such a host state may also conduct such inspections at the request of other state parties, given sufficient evidence of a violation. Thus, even if the MARPOL convention is only a preventive measure, it is one with far-reaching monitoring capabilities, even within the Antarctic. Although it is hard to ascertain how successful these multilateral verification measures are, it should be noted that if properly exploited these measures could provide a powerful deterrent to violations. It is clear that the US is highly concerned with marine air pollution around its shores and will likely remain vigilant to any violations of the North American EPA, and if all state parties recognise that the integrity of the Antarctic environment is a shared concern, these multilateral cooperative verification measures should be properly utilised.

Last changed: Aug 12 2011 at 10:58 AM

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