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Maritime Intermezzo


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Follow the Money

Follow the Money

The misguided belief that dilution is a solution to ship generated pollution in the 21st century is a central theme in today’s tragedy of the maritime commons.

An International Maritime Organization (IMO) marine expert… “The solution to ship’s air exhaust pollution is simple: we scrub the exhaust and dump the waste into the ocean.”

The oceans are dying - ships flushing discharges to the sea, acidification, deep sea drilling blowouts, fishing’s strip-mining-practices, whaling, agricultural runoff, ever larger dead zones, rising temps, shoreside waste tipped into rivers and seas. The oceans aren’t infinite.

A Rational Man

In 1776, Adam Smith painted a hopeful picture of a “rational“ man being guided by an “invisible hand” to ensure a rising economic tide lifted all boats. Smith’s “rational” man understood his own wellbeing was connected to the public’s wellbeing. Pay your staff a living wage and they’ll have enough money to buy your product.

In 1833, William Lloyd in his narrative on the Tragedy of the Commons described another type of “rational” man. Lloyd’s used an open public pasture as an example where all cattle owners had equal access to graze their animals. Each owner wanting to maximize the benefits of the “free” public resource packed the pasture with their own animals. Collectively, all the owners finally exceed the carrying capacity of the land. The resource can no longer support any grazing, and everyone loses. It is a remorseless rational individual behavior that guarantees the inevitable collective collapse and destruction of the common resource.

There is an inherent logic at work. Each owner makes decisions based on their own narrow financial gain. Maximizing gain, owners are compelled to add cows, sheep or … ships, as each is a positive entry to their bottom line. The results of the tragedy can be seen globally.

It isn’t that the owners don’t know what the right choice is; they just choose not to select it. One maritime commentator opined that the status quo ship owner can be relied upon to do the right thing after they’ve exhausted every bad option, been battered by the public and fined by the regulators.

“Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.” (Seneca)

Which brings us to International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) “new” fuel oil standard, ship’s stack emissions, emission’s scrubbers and the discharge of the scrubbed waste to the sea. (see DNVGL’s scrubber depiction).

In 2018 a rare public debate erupted in the halls of the IMO’s headquarters in London regarding the adoption of cleaner fuel regulations for the world’s merchant fleets. Several Flag States attempted to forestall the IMO’s adoption of the cleaner fuel standards. The resultant negative critical coverage by media, as well as the support of the standard by responsible flags and the EU government ensured the standard was adopted.

The IMO is not a bastion of transparent process or of progressive leadership. The largest flags (Panama, Liberia, Singapore, Marshall Islands, Bahamas) pay the highest fees to run the IMO and have commiserate political persuasion. Those flags and the USA pushed for an alternative to the higher costing cleaner fuel - enter the scrubber amendment. Put simply – the scrubber takes an air pollutant and makes it an ocean pollutant. If the IMO really believes this is a viable solution, why not let the ships continue to spew the sulfur directly into the air?

The pro-scrubber lobby wants to avoid paying for cleaner fuel and the installation of scrubbers is predicated on the avoidance. The return on investment (ROI) discussed by the scrubber manufacturers for an installed open loop system in the first year is approximately $2.5 million US – the approximate cost of the equipment and installation. The ROI is based on avoiding the cost of cleaner fuel. No cost is assigned to the discharge of the waste into the ocean commons.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers?

The oceans of the world are under constant attack. Globally, the oceans are being used as an open cesspool for agriculture runoff, chemical liquid waste from big pharma and refineries, mining waste, plastics, shipping, etc..

The tragedy of the maritime commons is believing the oceans are an inexhaustible resource. The buyers of the scrubber systems may have acted in good faith. They may have been told that the discharge would be harmless. And they may have wanted to believe all of this, in spite of what their common sense told them.

The cumulative effect of all discharges by the continued use of the oceans as a cesspool will hurt all businesses and the public, hastening the collapse of the maritime commons.

Well financed shipping companies can do better. We all can. Let’s start by agreeing the oceans are finite and are not to be used as a cesspool.

Of course, we can always use the ex-governor of California’s acid test for discharges – fill a pool with the waste and have the executives swim in it. ActaNonVerba