The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, facing a backlash from the shipping industry, politicians in the U.S. Midwest and the Canadian government, has agreed to weaken new rules that would have prohibited Great Lakes freighters from burning high-polluting bunker fuel.
Under a deal negotiated with U.S. legislators, the EPA will allow steamships, about 20 per cent of the Great Lakes fleet of approximately 100 ships, to receive a permanent exemption from proposed regulations requiring them to use cleaner oil.
The Canadian embassy in Washington took the unusual step of fighting the EPA's tough original proposals, even though they would have led to reduced air pollution on the Canadian side of the lakes.
The EPA has been trying to control emissions from ships, the last major part of the transportation sector to face strict clean-fuel rules.
Canada opposed the measures because of the economic hardship they would impose on the shipping industry, sending the EPA a letter in September outlining its objections.
"The Canadian government did perhaps play a role in getting these exemptions in the United States Congress," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
The EPA had been trying to force the lake freighters, which carry bulk cargoes such as coal and iron ore, to switch to fuels containing less than 1,000 parts per million of sulphur, a contaminant that causes large amounts of air pollution when burned, starting in 2015.
Currently, fuel used by the vessels has a sulphur content of about 17,000 ppm. Low-sulphur fuel is about 70 per cent to 250 per cent more expensive than grades now in use.
The ships receiving the exemption were mainly built in the 1950s, and the shipping industry says they cannot be converted to use low-emission diesel.