The ballast water treatment industry is a diverse group of skill sets that could find itself being used as a weapon in a trade war
Over the last six months I have had good cause to be grateful to those who have patiently explained to me the various aspects of ballast water treatment technology. It has quickly became apparent that this is not one subject, but many technologies, sciences and engineering disciplines grouped under one heading. To my mind, the approach of pushing the responsibility for treating ballast water onto the ship was like forming an Olympic ice hockey team from professional footballers, boxers, golfers and cricketers – all skilled at their particular disciplines, but not as good as starting off with members of the NHL.
This tortured sports analogy came to mind after reading Nigeria’s paper to be presented at MEPC 74 – ballast water treatment in ports. Many of the ballast water treatment technologies I have seen at trade shows and visited in factories were derived from land-based technologies for the treatment of swimming pools and sewage plant water. Surely the application of scale to the treatment of ballast water from many ships in a port would have been more efficient? And owners and operators would have been able to pass the cost onto the consumer, as with any other port expense, rather than the dead money of an imposed capital expense. But this is the opinion of someone new to the business, and I am sure there were perfectly good arguments as to why port-based treatment of ballast water was not an option.
Which brings us to the present day. There are indications that there will not be enough slots in shiprepair yards to retrofit the large portion of the global fleet that does not have ballast water treatment systems fitted. This could lead to competition for slots, a bonus for yards, and for manufacturers of readily available, type-approved ballast water treatment systems.
In the short term, there is now a wide range of IMO and/or United States Coast Guard (USCG) type-approved systems to suit most types of vessels. I noted in this supplement that there are 35 combinations of technologies available, and at the time of writing there are 17 USCG type-approved systems and another 12 systems on the horizon. I am confident these will all join the type-approved list. I am less confident that the USCG will bow to Senate pressure and the VIDA Bill to accept IMO-type testing. It has been 180 days since the military organisation was instructed to provide a draft policy letter. Perhaps it was delayed in the post due to the federal government slowdown during President Trump’s standoff over funds to build a wall along the border with Mexico.
Which brings me to my future concerns regarding ballast water treatment and US environmental legislation. The US has just entered into another tariff dispute with a trading partner. The cynical may say the latest spate with China is an attempt to divert attention away from domestic issues, but if there is one skill this US president consistently displays, it is the ability to exert leverage with all the tools available – and strict application of environmental rules on foreign ships has many attractions.
The legislation is already in place (no need to deal with those pesky Democrats), the environment is highly topical, and protecting the borders plays to his fan base. It would place ballast water treatment in the public spotlight, an uncomfortable place to be, but as difficult as playing ice hockey in football boots.