Carnival Corp. touts scrubber tech as new emissions rules loom

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The Carnival Horizon, which uses scrubber technology.
The Carnival Horizon, which uses scrubber technology.

Ahead of the worldwide tightening of sulfur emission rules for ships of all types in 2020, the cruise industry is facing criticism that its use of scrubbers, its preferred solution for removing sulfur from smokestack exhaust, is flawed.

A collection of environmental groups has asked regulators to adopt the use of low-sulfur fuel as the only allowable method of complying with regulations designed to reduce health problems from sulfur dioxide emissions.

The cruise industry prefers a mix of low-sulfur fuel and exhaust gas "scrubbers," a type of machine that captures sulfur from heavy fuel combustion before it can escape into the atmosphere.

Now, on a new website, Carnival Corp. is making its case that scrubbers, which it calls Advanced Air Quality Systems, are the most effective way to reduce not only sulfur dioxide but a variety of polluting elements in the residue of fuel combustion.

The site contains links to several scientific studies supporting Carnival's position. Mike Kaczmarek, Carnival Corp.'s senior vice president for marine technology, said the website will "help educate the public on the environmental benefits of Advanced Air Quality Systems and their effectiveness as a solution for meeting and exceeding the upcoming IMO [International Maritime Organization] regulations."

A diagram of what Carnival Corp. calls its Advanced Air Quality System for removing sulfur from smokestack exhaust.
A diagram of what Carnival Corp. calls its Advanced Air Quality System for removing sulfur from smokestack exhaust.

The IMO is the United Nations-sanctioned body that sets a global regulatory framework for safety, environmental, labor and other types of policies on the high seas.

The IMO's decade-long tightening of sulfur emission standards is set to culminate on Jan. 1, when ships of all types the world over will be required to emit sulfur as if the fuel in question contained no more than 0.5% sulfur.

Because much of the world fleet, particularly cargo vessels, uses so-called heavy fuel oil, also known as bunker fuel, which has sulfur content of 3.5% or higher, the regulation is producing upward price pressure on low-sulfur fuel.

Bunker fuel is what's left over after gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other hydrocarbons are separated from crude oil in refineries.

In one study undertaken in January, the price for bulk crude delivered in Houston was $56.65 per barrel for 3.5% sulfur fuel and $74.70 per barrel for low-sulfur fuel.

Energy sector forecasters are raising doubts about the available supply of low-sulfur fuel as the new rules kick in.

Carnival's website asserts, "If these forecasts are accurate, the use of Advanced Air Quality Systems will be an important component in the maritime industry's ability to comply with IMO 2020 regulations."

With an IMO committee now working on support documents for the Jan. 1 changeover, nearly a dozen environmental groups petitioned the agency to delegitimize scrubbers. They argued that the technology isn't always reliable, citing an audit of the Carnival fleet from 2017-18 that turned up 30 examples of scrubbers that either weren't turned on or had unexpectedly shut down in areas where sulfur emissions were already capped.

Questions have also been raised about pollution from the "wash" that results when sulfur is captured by water sprayed through the exhaust.

On its new site, Carnival highlights a study in which the maritime classification society DNV GL found that the level of two key pollutants in wash water, nitrates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), were 90% lower than the IMO's maximum allowable levels.

Carnival also argues that scrubbers actually exceed low-sulfur fuel as an anti-pollution technology because in the process of capturing sulfur, the scrubbing water spray also reduces fine particulates, commonly known as soot particles, as well as PAH. Both can be cancer-causing chemicals in some circumstances, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Carnival's strategy for reducing sulfur dioxide levels has been heavily oriented toward scrubbers since 2015, when the sulfur standard was lowered to 0.1% in special coastal areas around North America under IMO guidelines.

Since then, it has spent more than $500 million to install more than 220 scrubbers on 77 of the 100-plus ships in its fleet. Its goal is to install nearly 400 scrubbers that would eventually cover 85% of the Carnival fleet.

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