California Mariners Speak Out On Commercial Harbor Craft Rule  

On January 1 of this year, the final version of the California Harbor Craft emissions rule issued by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) took effect. It gave operators of harbor craft, including commercial tugboats, towboats and ferries until December 2024 to have all their boats operated with Tier 4 engines outfitted with diesel particulate filters (DPFs), attachments designed to burn particulate matter (soot) before it exits into the atmosphere. (Fishing boats are exempt.)

The problem is DPFs for marine diesel engines don’t exist, and there is no prospect of their being introduced anytime soon. Even if they did exist, the rule’s aggressive timeline doesn’t give enough time for the Coast Guard and maritime class societies to examine them to make sure they are safe to operate.
When a certified marine engine is modified, its safety, efficiency, operability and even insurability can be affected.

That has left commercial operators concerned about safety. According to Kyle Burleson, director of state advocacy at The American Waterways Operators, there is a real chance that if nothing is done to mitigate or delay it, the rule could result in some tugboat and towboat operators leaving the Bay area and moving their assets to other parts of the country. The potential effect on container traffic at the ports of Long Beach and Lost Angeles is unknown.

The AWO, along with the entire maritime industry, opposed the timeline of the rule. In September, AWO President Jennifer Carpenter said, “CARB has adopted rules that will force tugboat and other vessel operators to install DPFs that are neither Coast Guard-approved nor certified by recognized classification societies such as the respected maritime safety and technical experts at the American Bureau of Shipping. The glaring absence of these crucial certifications, which could take until 2025, raises concerns about the reliability and safety of these systems in the marine environment. Despite this, the board is now asking the Environmental Protection Agency to grant a waiver under section 209(e) of the Clean Air Act to allow them to enforce their unsafe rule.” A waiver is necessary because under the Clean Water Act, states that want to apply stricter air or water regulations than those issued by EPA must apply for a waiver, which is usually granted.

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“We have the same goals as CARB,” Burleson stressed. “We all want clean air, and we are not trying to tell CARB what they can or cannot do. We are not afraid of regulations, as we have shown many times. Many of our members are leaders in early adoption of green technology.”

The industry has been trying to work with CARB on the rule, and Burleson said CARB members seemed to be listening earlier in the process. But lately, CARB has ignored information from industry that the proper DPFs do not exist and has also ignored a warning about safety from the Coast Guard. “When we raised the point about the DPFs, we were told, ‘California is the sixth largest economy in the world, and the market will take care of that need.’ ”  While that may be true in the long term, in the short to medium term, it may result in severe disruption to the tug and commercial watercraft industry, even the permanent exit of some operators, AWO said.

Furthermore, the market for this particular subset of DPFs is small—perhaps 200 tugboats and towboats, many operated by small mom-and-pop firms that can ill afford the expense of the new, untested technology. The total cost for the commercial harbor craft to comply with the CHC was estimated—before the COVID-19 pandemic—at $1.3 billion—. Burleson said the state has recognized the burden and has set aside $60 million for compliance aid, for which commercial harbor craft operators have to compete with other affected groups.

Bill To Delay Rule Introduced

Some California legislators, at least, are taking notice. A day before a key hearing on California’s ports and export industries, a member of the lower house of California’s legislature introduced a billthat would block the rule  from taking effect unless and until it is certified safe for mariners and non-disruptive to transportation.

Dr. Jasmeet Bains (D-Delano) represents the 35th Assembly District in Kern County. She released the following statement on the introduction of Assembly Bill 1122, which supersedes CARB’s new harbor vessel emissions regulations by ensuring they cannot go into effect without being certified by competent maritime bodies that they are safe for mariners and undisruptive to supply chain operations at California’s ports.

“California’s ports are responsible for 40 percent of all the imports and exports of the United States. Importantly, they are critical to the operation of the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural industries. Disruptions at our ports create supply chain ripple effects throughout the state and country, driving up inflation and costs for things like gasoline.

“The mariners, pilots and other crewmembers who operate port and harbor vessels are essential to making the supply chain run smoothly while also protecting the sensitive environment of our coastal communities.

“The California Air Resources Board knowingly sacrificed the safety of these brave men and women, and ignored the advice of the U.S. Coast Guard, when they adopted recent amendments to regulations governing tugboats and other harbor vessels. The amendments were adopted despite objections from the U.S. Coast Guard that they could jeopardize the safety of crewmembers and the environment alike. In fact, CARB hid its communication with the U.S. Coast Guard from the public and refused to modify its amendments to address their concerns.

“These regulations would compel vessel owners to retrofit their ships with unproven technologies that could cause engines to heat up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and catch fire–endangering the safety of the crew and anyone around them. They could cause tugboats to lose control of oil tankers, resulting in oil spills that will kill countless marine animals and irreparably harm sensitive habitats. These regulations are simply too dangerous to go forward unchanged.”

Select Committee Hearing

Burleson testified November 2 before the Select Committee on Ports and Goods Movement, a committee of California’s legislature, regarding the CHC rule. The hearing covered a broad spectrum of issues affecting California’s ports and export industries, but the CHC rule was a key topic, along with CARB’s rules for truck emissions, which could also drastically affect ports.

Burleson noted that the tug industry introduced the first hybrid tugboat to California as long ago as 2010 and touted the recently launched Hydrogen One towboat. But the CHC creates a “Catch-22” for the industry.

“DPFs for marine diesel engines simply don’t exist in the numbers necessary for the Coast Guard or class societies to certify them,” he said.  Any device attached to a marine engine could threaten its Tier 4 certification, Burleson said, which in turn could affect a vessel’s ability to obtain marine insurance. Without insurance, vessels cannot sail.

But safety is the industry’s ultimate objection. As both Burleson and Capt. Sly Hunter, vice president of the Masters, Mates and Pilots union, testified, when a diesel particulate filter explodes or causes a fire (as many early ones did on trucks), a trucker can simply walk away. Mariners don’t have that option.

Regarding safety, Bains said, “I am not willing to stand by and watch someone die because CARB didn’t do their job. They [CARB] have known about these concerns since at least 2021 and have done nothing to address them. The legislature must step in to ensure that safety comes before bureaucratic apathy.”