Shipping industry shifts toward natural gas for carbon and cost reductions

Cargo ships are under pressure to meet the supply and demand of a rapidly expanding economy. As with any business venture, managing operating costs and optimizing supply chain operations are critical to long-term sustainability.

In a recently published report, the European Parliament said that, by 2050, the shipping industry alone could be responsible for one-sixth of all carbon dioxide emissions.

Shipping supply chains face economic and environmental issues
The energy-efficiency of container ships is not just important for reducing carbon footprints. By saving on fuel, merchant ships can conserve money, The New York Times' Henry Fountain revealed, since half of maritime operating costs is allotted to powering the ship.

In the article, the science writer highlighted various solutions that could make ships more sustainable.

One way, he noted, is "slow steaming." Decreasing the speed at which cargo ships travel can lower both the amount of fuel burned and how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, sometimes by as much as half.

Unfortunately, the delay of supply chain operations is already a growing concern for merchant ships. Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that, as of July 1, 2016, shippers will be required to provide container weight verifications on all packed containers, a regulation some argue will slow delivery and increase transportation costs.

Another problem with this solution which some environmentalists pointed out to Fountain is that, even if carbon emissions per ship were reduced, it won't help in the long run if there are more cargo ships in use, which will likely be a result as the market expands.

A third way to improve the energy efficiency of marine fuel is to turn toward renewable sources of energy such as liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

This year, shipping company Tote launched the first two Marlin Class container ships in the world to be powered by LNG, Isla Bella and Perla del Caribe, initiating a shift in the industry proposing a new standard of safety.

According to the company's announcement, implementing the use of natural gas in the Puerto Rico trade industry has allowed it to reduce its emission of carbon dioxide by 72 percent, as well as particulate matter by 60 percent.

"We came to a decision that rather than putting Band-Aids on things, we should look for ways to address core issues of maritime emissions," Tote Executive Vice President Peter Keller told Fountain.

Using natural gas to fuel container ships
However, these ships implemented this solution, in large part, to reduce the emissions of other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, Fountain revealed. And while LNG can reduce carbon emissions by 15 to 20 percent in comparison to other types of power, it isn't without its downsides.

Though it may be overall better for the environment, liquefied natural gas is still a fossil fuel that contains large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, reported the source. Furthermore, using it to power ships requires burning at least some amount of diesel oil, and the LNG tanks also tend to be more expensive than traditional counterparts, especially since special equipment is need to accommodate the negative temperatures of the liquefied gas.

Still, Keller told Fountain that Tote plans to expand its use of LNG and will eventually power cargo vessels transported between Washington and Alaska with it.

And Tote isn't the only company focusing on the natural resource.

This week, the Associated Press reported two new LNG facilitates have submitted an application the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval to build.

If permitted, Venture Global LNG, a firm based in Washington D.C., and Louisiana LNG Energy LLC, based in Houston, will join 10 natural gas projects in Louisiana currently in development.

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