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Impending Ban on Ship Fuel Squeezes U.S. Antarctic Program

Two workhorses of the U.S. Antarctic research program may need to be put out to pasture because the fuel they burn is likely to be banned from the Southern Ocean. Officials at the National Science Foundation, which runs the program, told the National Science Board yesterday that they are trying to figure out how to compensate for the anticipated loss of the two ships.

The tanker USNS Lawrence H. Gianella and the cargo ship USNS American Tern are part of the U.S. Military Sealift Command and are used to deliver supplies and equipment to McMurdo Station. But both ships use a heavy grade of fuel oil that would do serious environmental damage to the region if there were a large spill. In 2005, the 45 nations that have signed the Antarctic Treaty agreed to ask the International Maritime Organization to prevent the stuff from being carried or used below the 60˚ south latitude, and last month, IMO's marine environmental panel embraced the idea. IMO, of which the U.S. is a member, is expected to approve the ban at its meeting in March 2010, effective July 2011. The biggest impact is expected to be on cruise ships plying the Southern Ocean.

The fuel "is like molasses—thick, black, and heavy," Lieutenant Colonel Mark Doll, of NSF's Office of Polar Programs (OPP), explained to the science board, NSF's oversight body. "It's cheaper to use than other fuels, but it would be very slow to break down in case of a spill, and the input would be felt for a long time."

OPP Director Karl Erb told the board that possible solutions include seeking an exemption for the ships or finding newer vessels that use lighter-grade fuel, although he added that an exemption would run counter to the U.S. government’s support for the ban. He cautioned the board that any solution is likely to be more expensive.