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CO2 emissions from the Detroit River

A common sight along the Detroit River, cargo ships emit huge amounts of CO2 without notice.
A common sight along the Detroit River, cargo ships emit huge amounts of CO2 without notice.

Once labeled as the greatest commercial artery on Earth in the early twentieth century, the Detroit River is known for being one of the busiest international waterways in the world. In history, it was used by the Iroquois Indians and French for fur trading purposes. As time progressed, Detroit became the capital of the industrial revolution, which caused for massive amounts of lumber, iron ore and steel shipped from the straits of Detroit River to the world. In fact, in 1908, Detroit River shipped 67 million tons of commerce, while New York and London shipped below 21 million tons each respectively.

On any given day in Detroit, one would be able to spot large freighter ships along the Detroit River as they travel to their destinations. A growing concern of these freighter ships revolve around Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions. And unlike automobile emissions and building/home energy efficiencies that absorb lots of media attention, freighter ship emissions are commonly known within more energy and environmentally conscious circles. Therefore as a Detroiter, I feel it is a duty to expose the cargo ship emission issue with fellow Detroiters.

Here’s interesting data, did you know that the world’s 15 largest container ships could emit as much pollution as all the world’s 760 million cars. The world’s largest container ships are approximately 1200 ft long with 85,000KW diesel engines containing 109,000 horsepower. Therefore each of these 15 ships could possibly exhaust the same amount of CO2 emissions as 50 million cars. For comparison purposes, there are 1000ft freighters that travel along the Detroit River. Therefore cities bordering the Detroit River are receivers of heavy pollution produced by the shipping industry.

The reason why ships emit so much CO2 is due to their fuel content. Large cargo ships use a fuel known as bunker fuel. When crude oil is processed through various stages, different products are produced such as gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel. When producing these fuels there is a residual fuel in the bottom of the processing tanks that is less desirable due to its high pollutants, viscous properties and sulfur content. This is bunker fuel and it contains 2000 times the sulfur as diesel fuel. The shipping industry desire this fuel due to its economically reasonable pricing.

The EPA conclusion of an investigation of port cities realized that cities containing ports or high cargo ship traffic contained high amounts of asthma rates. The EPA also knew that indigenous populations were being exposed to these cancer causing chemicals. Therefore the EPA mandated a air pollution rule stating that any container ships within 200 miles of U.S. borders must use fuels with lower sulfur content due to it cleaner burning properties.

The city of Detroit would fall into this category. However, out of the 55 freighter ships that inhabit the Great Lakes, 13 are being exempt for fear of job loss due to the expensive upgrades for the companies to purchase higher quality fuel. If Detroit wants to become a cleaner emission city, this issue cannot be avoided. And to think, all the focus is on the Big 3 innovations on hybrids and electric vehicles in order to reduce emissions, when all along there is an 800lb gorilla in the room that very few people are paying attention to.


  • Bob Smith 5 years ago

    Interesting article. I had no idea about the extent of ship emissions.

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