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EPA rule could hurt Baltimore port [Commentary]

The Port of Baltimore sits on the cusp of major advancements. This year marks the highly anticipated completion of an eight-year project to widen the Panama Canal, which is expected to bring a major boost in cargo shipments to Baltimore, one of only two East Coast ports capable of handling the larger ships that will soon be passing through. After visiting the canal last year, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the project could double the 100,000 jobs already supported by Baltimore's port. But amid this exciting growth, a well-intentioned but poorly designed Environmental Protection Agency regulation could very well have a disproportionate impact on a small but vital part of Baltimore's freight network: short sea shipping.

Unlike the large and iconic transoceanic ships often spotted at the port, short sea vessels transport goods by traveling shorter distances along near-shore routes between coastal ports. Short sea shipping offers Baltimore the safest and most fuel-efficient method for moving cargo between neighboring East Coast ports and for trade with Canada, Baltimore's biggest importer. But in an effort to curb sulfur emissions reaching coastal communities, a new EPA rule, planned to go into effect in 2015, will require vessels traveling within 200 nautical miles of any North American coast to use a highly expensive, low-sulfur fuel. For most transoceanic vessels, this will only affect a small fraction of their overall voyage. But, for short sea vessels, which travel almost exclusively in this regulated zone, the rule will make shipping prohibitively expensive, likely raising coastal shipping costs by as much as 35 percent.

Not only will this burden Baltimore during an important time of growth, the regulation will also likely prove counter-productive to its own environmental objectives. Unlike international shipping, short sea vessels are in direct competition with trains and trucks. These land-based methods require more fuel and produce greater carbon emissions than short sea shipping. An uncompetitive short sea shipping industry will mean more trucks on the road, and ultimately, more carbon emissions, road congestion and urban pollutants.

Fortunately, a solution exists that achieves the EPA's objectives without incapacitating the port's ability to efficiently and environmentally move cargo along the East Coast. The forthcoming one-size-fits-all restriction doesn't account for the fact that short sea vessels are generally smaller and produce fewer emissions than their transoceanic counterparts. Emissions from short sea vessels have a negligible impact on coastal communities after reaching only 50 nautical miles offshore. So by amending its regulations to consider this important distinction, the EPA can reduce coastal sulfur emissions without sabotaging the environmental benefits of short sea shipping.

Baltimore has an opportunity to embrace new economic growth to the benefit of its industries, communities and environmental legacy. Counter-productive restrictions that seem helpful on the surface but are actually lacking in substance are not what built this thriving port and are not what will keep it successful in the future.

Stephen J. Brooks

The writer is president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce and president of the Maritime Industrial Transportation Alliance.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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