Driving Ballast Water Technology: right out of business …
I must admit that I often struggle to understand where we are headed with the ballast water treatment quandary. But, every once in a while, someone puts things in perfect perspective, so even I – a former boat driver with no engineering skills whatsoever – can understand it. Last month, this brilliant flash of enlightenment came from the U.S. Coast Guard’s own Maritime commons, or what they characterize as their ‘Coast Guard Blog for Maritime Professionals.’
The blog is typically very informative and I encourage everyone to dial in and soak up the wisdom. I usually look forward to it. For example, on 16 May, the headliner involved, “Ballast water treatment, uncertainty and what to learn from it all.” The writer was none other than U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, assistant commandant for prevention policy. If you aren’t familiar with him, well, he’s the guy at the pointy end of the spear when it comes to ballast water compliance and, more importantly, the regulatory approvals necessary for BWT manufacturers to be able to sell their products into the market. As for the latter item, we currently have no approved systems here in these United States. But, I’m drifting off course a little.
Within that 16 May entry, RADM Thomas tells stakeholders: It’s no secret; there is a great deal of angst over the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention, the U.S. BWM regulations, and ballast water management system (BWMS) type approval processes. Many in the shipping industry have called for measures to ensure that never again are we put in a position where regulations call for technology that doesn’t yet exist, or type approval requirements that cannot be met by commercially- available technology; however, the very nature of the environmental challenges facing the shipping industry not only precludes the elimination of such dilemmas – it demands them.
Regulation can provide the critical forcing function that drives innovation and encourages technological developments to meet the environmental challenges. This occurs when regulations set ‘stretch’ goals and incentivize investment to meet those goals. Regulations that embrace the status quo and codify existing commercially-available technology only serve to stifle innovation and prevent industry from meeting environmental challenges. Both the IMO BWM Convention and the U.S. BWM regulations set a discharge standard that represents a stretch goal, and they drive investment and innovation towards the development of solutions that are both effective and practical. Future environmental challenges will require similar regulatory-forcing functions.
He’s right about one thing: there is a great deal of angst amongst industry stakeholders. But, that’s where he and I diverge. I’m told privately that the BWT sales situation is agonizingly slow, as ship owners hedge their bets against what the coast guard might come up with next. You can’t blame them. On the other hand, at least 50 firms await some sort of edict from the U.S. Coast Guard on what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Not all of them will have the wherewithal to hang around until it comes. To be fair, that’s not the problem of the Coast Guard. Or, is it?
Regulations Driving Innovation?
Getting back to RADM Thomas’ narrative, it is clear (at least to this writer) that we have come full circle in the effort to effectively battle the scourge of invasive species. That’s because you could probably take the Coast Guard position – as laid out above – on BWT, and find someone from the great state of California advocating the exact same thing. You see, that’s the position they adopted when pushing their insistence of a ballast water treatment standard that was 1000x the IMO benchmark. You couldn’t even measure to that standard then – and you still can’t. But saying it again now is no less silly than it was when the Golden State came up with it many years ago.
Thomas – as did California before him – would have us believe Regulation can provide the critical forcing function that drives innovation and encourages technological developments to meet the environmental challenges. He calls this policy one of incentivization and one that produces ‘stretch goals.’ On the surface, that’s a fine way to produce future results, but unfortunately, we’re dealing with the here and now, especially when it comes to ballast water treatment.
If the Coast Guard, EPA, individual states and/or the IMO want to encourage innovation, I’m all for it. But ‘stretch goals’ don’t solve today’s problems, especially when the technologies now exist to eliminate 99 percent of our invasive species issues – based on anyone’s criteria, including the U.S. Coast Guard. It is time to get the equipment onto the ships, and actually start to solve the problem. And, there are many layers to the onion that makes this so true.
If I concede for a minute that regulations can and do drive future innovation, then I’m also allowed to say that the innovation that the Coast Guard seeks – if it comes at all – will be a long time coming and furthermore will eventually emanate from just a handful of players. That’s because many of the firms in this space right now exist to fill just one business niche. Sure, there’s a few who have multiple business units and can in theory weather the regulatory storm until something concrete arrives from inside the Beltway. I’m also betting, however, that some of those more solvent and diversified firms will also eventually decide that it just isn’t worth the hassle. And, who could blame them?
At the point where this “incentivized innovation” does arrive, I would argue that neither the manufacturing capacity, nor the dry dock space will exist to take on the immediate challenge of getting everyone in compliance. Installing BWT equipment isn’t like heading over to the price club to shop for discount tires. It is a multiple month process of planning, measuring, ordering the equipment for production and securing shipyard time to get it done. As it stands now, we’re still years away from full global compliance.
The Future is Now
With all due respect to RADM Thomas, when it comes to ballast water treatment solutions, we no longer have the time to incentivize innovation. The time to do it – if it ever was possible at all – was 15-20 years ago. Furthermore, I would argue that – in the eyes of most of the world – OEM’s have over time responded with resounding success. Today, thousands of ship operators await some sort of signal to do what all of them want to do: operate in an environmentally correct manner with approved equipment. But, that’s not going to happen.
The current regulatory climate isn’t driving innovation. It is instead driving the innovators out of the market. And, that’s a far more serious problem than deciding how to determine what’s dead, what’s alive, what is viable, and everything else in between. As for me, I’m holding out for that magic box that accurately measures 1000x IMO BWT efficacy. – MarPro.
Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at [email protected] or at [email protected] MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.