A federal appeals court Wednesday rejected a state regulation that reduced emissions from ships, dealing a blow to California's attempt to combat one of the major sources of smog-forming pollution in the Los Angeles region.
The ruling means that the state must seek federal approval before imposing pollution limits on the thousands of cargo ships, cruise ships and other marine vessels that visit its ports.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that California's new regulation is preempted by federal law. The Clean Air Act allows California to set its own standards for various vehicles and engines if it receives waivers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The state argued that in this case it didn't technically need a waiver, but the judges disagreed.
Ships sailing into the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are considered a major source of particulates, nitrogen oxides and sulfur, pollutants that cause the region to frequently violate federal health standards.
Microscopic soot from diesel engines can lodge in lungs, triggering heart attacks, asthma and other cardiovascular and respiratory problems, scientists say. Diesel exhaust has also been linked to lung cancer.
The ruling is the second setback in two months to California's efforts to combat air pollution rather than wait for federal action.
For four decades, the state has adopted its own regulations for cars, trucks, factories, consumer products and other sources of air pollution, often prompting the federal government to set similar standards.
Since the 1970s, the EPA has granted California hundreds of waivers allowing it to set its own emission standards.
But in December, the agency denied the state's request to impose standards to reduce greenhouse gases from automobiles.
The EPA administrator has argued that, unlike smog and diesel fumes, climate change is a global problem, not a state one.
The California Air Resources Board immediately stopped enforcing the ship rule Wednesday as its attorneys debated their options. They will either appeal to the Supreme Court or seek a waiver from the EPA.
Air board officials said the court ruling will delay, but not stop, emission limits on the ships.
"This is critical to protecting public health, particularly around ports," said air board spokeswoman Gennet Paauwe. "It is part of our large plan to cut emissions, particularly for the ports and goods-movement sectors."
The ship rule was adopted by the air board in 2005 and implemented last year. It addressed the use of auxiliary diesel engines within 24 nautical miles of the coast. Such engines, which often run on highly polluting bunker fuel, provide power for onboard electricity.
The engines emit an estimated 1,400 tons a year of particulates in the L.A. Basin and account for about 15% of the region's diesel emissions, according to a 2005 air board report.
The Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn., a San Francisco-based group of shipping companies, filed suit to block enforcement of the rule. A federal district court sided with the association in August, and Wednesday's ruling reaffirms that decision.
In June, the air board is scheduled to consider a separate regulation for the main engines that propel ships. The court ruling could mean that California would first have to seek EPA authorization.
John McLaurin, president of the shipping association, said the industry prefers federal or international standards, "which will ensure consistent application of air quality rules and meaningful emissions reductions throughout the world."
Some shipping companies have already complied with the rule by switching to low-sulfur fuels, lowering speeds voluntarily or using shore-side electrical power. In 2004, nearly 10,000 oceangoing ships visited California ports, half of them container ships.
"This lawsuit was not about whether emissions from vessels should be reduced but about who should have the jurisdiction to impose and enforce requirements on international trade," McLaurin said.
Attorneys for the air board contended that the regulation applied only to old engines, not to new ones, so they argued that they did not need EPA authorization because it was not an emissions standard.
Two environmental groups, the city of Long Beach and the South Coast Air Quality Management District intervened in the case in support of the state board.
"Our staff decided to go ahead and regulate because we felt we did have regulatory authority," Paauwe said.
The court rejected that argument, calling the regulation an emissions standard and citing similar rulings by other courts.
State officials do not know whether the EPA is likely to approve a waiver for the ship rule. State and local control of air pollution from ships, airplanes and railroads has long been controversial because of laws safeguarding interstate commerce and concerns that such rules should be international.