Tell both sides of the story

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

One of the cardinal tenets of journalism is to tell both sides of the story. Sometimes it happens. Then there're all the other times.

A recent Globe and Mail story about Canadian objections to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to force cargo ships entering American waters to stop burning bunker fuel to power their engines is a perfect example of the latter.

The EPA proposal, which has been under discussion for some time, is simple enough to understand. Bunker fuel is full of sulphur and burning it releases a lot of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Breathing the stuff is harmful to humans so, not surprisingly, the E.P.A. wants ships to phase out its use or install scrubbers in their funnels.

The main target for EPA is the ocean going vessels calling at American ports. But the law would sideswipe the much smaller Canadian Great Lakes fleet because vessels sail in and out of American waters repeatedly between Montreal and Thunder Bay.

What the Globe did was quote at length an environmental group spokesman spouting outrage that Canada would seek an exemption for its Great Lakes fleet. The story portrays the Canadian request as having been done on the sly.

Only near the bottom of the story does Bruce Bowie, president of the Canadian Shipowners Association, which represents the Great Lakes operators, get a brief opportunity to explain his side of the story. How many readers waded through the environmental verbiage to find the other side of the story would be a good guess.

First there was no subterfuge in the Canadian request. Ever since Bowie's group and other shipowner organizations learned of the EPA proposal, part of an international move to get sulphur out of marine fuels, they had asked both the Agency and the Canadian government to consider their position. Obviously Ottawa did and presented their view to the EPA. It probably won't do any good.

What the Globe might have noted in its story is that the average of the Canadian ship on the Great Lakes is over 30 years. While the fleet earns its keep, the returns are too low from the marine operations for the shipowners to justify buying new freighters in Canada, which would cost them far more than if they could purchase them overseas. Not only is the cost higher, Canada has a 25% duty on foreign built ships imported for domestic transportation. The owners have tried just about every possible argument butOttawa isn't budging. The duty will be phased out eventually under a free trade agreement with Norwayand three other European countries. By then, the Canadian Great Lakes fleet or what's left of it will have moved from being just old to antiques.

Canadian shipowners have invested a lot of time and money into going green. There's even a green marine webpage. But until they can afford to buy new ships with clean engines and modern ballast treatment, Canadians will have to decide whether the want ships hauling iron ore, grain, salt and other bulk commodities up and down the Great Lakes or would they rather have the cargos moving on our crowded highways or rail lines.

It's generally agreed that on a cargo/tonne mile basis, marine is by far the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation ahead of the railways and trucks. But the latter are trying hard to catch up with new locomotives and tractors that produce far less emissions than the older equipment. As well, low sulphur fuel is far more expensive than bunker fuel.

The shipowners don't have any choice but to ask Ottawa to get them an exemption or a long time to phase in scrubbers. They face the same problem with American state rules requiring ballast treatment equipment on ships. Not only is it very expensive to retrofit an old ship, there's no guarantee it would be any more effective than the procedures the ships now take to prevent unwanted aquatic species from entering the Lakes.

Now you know the other side of the story.

October 23, 2009 — Return to cover.
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