The Environmental Horrors of Bunker Fuel: Climate Action MIT Style

Before we look at the horrors of "Bunker Fuel" (a/k/a #6 Fuel Oil), first consider this brief excerpt from MIT's Energy Strategy - Plan For Action on Climate Change (

MIT has made the commitment to move from #2 and #6 fuel oil to a cleaner plant fueled by natural gas.

Let that one sit there and marinate for a minute.  More on that later.

So, just what is "Bunker Fuel" you ask?

In its most generic sense, Bunker Fuel is any fuel stored in a ship's bunker to fuel its engines.  In its most technical sense, #6 Fuel Oil (a/k/a "Residual Fuel Oil" or "RFO" or "Bunker C") is a heavy, high viscosity, long chain (between 20 to 70 carbons in length) hydrocarbon residual oil left over from the fractional distillation of petroleum.  It's least technical name is "the bottom of the barrel."  The only things heavier and dirtier than #6 Fuel Oil are carbon black and bituminous residue, used to produce asphalt for paving roads.  Yes, this stuff is really nasty.

But, RFO's nastiness doesn't end there.  Bunker Fuel is loaded with toxic impurities, especially sulfur.  It is reported that the City of New York found that just 1% of the buildings there that still burn either #4 or #6 fuel oil, account for fully 86% of the total airborne soot pollution produced by all the buildings in the City.  Let that one marinate a minute as well.

Back in 2009, British environmental expert and author Fred Pearce wrote an article in the U.K. Daily Mail involving the global sulfur emissions (sulfur oxides, or SOx chemically) from Bunker Fuel.  The Article made the shocking revelation that just 16 of the world's largest ships burning #6 Fuel Oil for power, can produce the same sulfur pollution globally as all of the passenger cars in the world combined.

We've all noticed it. The filthy black smoke kicked out by funnels on cross-Channel ferries, cruise liners, container ships, oil tankers and even tugboats.

It looks foul, and leaves a brown haze across ports and shipping lanes. But what hasn’t been clear until now is that it is also a major killer, probably causing thousands of deaths in Britain alone.

As ships get bigger, the pollution is getting worse. The most staggering statistic of all is that just 16 of the world’s largest ships can produce as much lung-clogging sulphur pollution as all the world’s cars.

The Article, How 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world, can be found at this link:

So, who in the world would use such polluting junk to fire their boilers?  MIT.

Yes, MIT.  MIT's Central Utilities Plant (CUP), located between Vassar and Albany streets, still has boilers using #6 Fuel Oil; this, according to its Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDep) Major Comprehensive Plan Application (NE-15-018).

In addition, your Application proposes to cease the burning of the higher polluting residual fuel oil in your existing boilers, BLR-42-3, BLR-42-4, and BLR-42-5, in favor of committing to burn natural gas as the primary fuel....

This plea from President Reif appears on the front page of MIT's Climate Action webpage (

There is room and reason for each of us to be part of the solution.  I urge everyone to join us in rising to this historic challenge.

Now, consider that MIT's boilers have been burning this stuff for at least 20 years.  Is MIT going to tell us that they are just figuring out now how polluting Bunker Fuel is?  What possible explanation could there be for the world's "Top University" to use such garbage?  Well for one thing, it's really cheap.

Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT) held a 116-day sit-in protest to urge immediate divestment from fossil fuel investments.  MIT declined.  With all the money from fossil fuel-based investment in MIT's coffers, are we to believe they couldn't splurge for cleaner fuel all this time?  How much carbon emissions (over the last 20 years) could have been abated if MIT had simply purchased cleaner fuel for its own power generation?

An online interactive map ( of EPA greenhouse gas emissions lists MIT's CUP as a "Category: Very High" source of air pollution.  How is this possible for such an enlightened scientific institute dedicated to climate action?

Perhaps this is the case because there is a big difference between climate rhetoric and climate action.

It appears to me that the first step in "rising to [the] historic challenge" is going to be exposing the hypocrisy in the behavior of institutions claiming to battle climate change.  Only then will we stop hearing things like calls to individual action in our personal lives while smoke stacks continue to billow out more pollution then any of our individual actions combined could ever offset; but, boy would this make some companies very rich in the process.  The focus needs to be changed from the individual to the institution.  The institutions/corporations are polluting at rates faster than any cumulative individual actions can ever repair.

There is no more room for empty climate rhetoric given the gravity of the climate change situation globally.  Least of all, at MIT.


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Aryt Alasti's picture

I'm sure there are impacts to

I'm sure there are impacts to those prices. There is quite a bit of evidence that other food prices are affected also, however - or at least, that food animal producers' costs are increased. On the other hand, I didn't realize that subsidies for corn growers amount to billions of dollars per year, and that additionally, farmers' costs amount to only ten percent of final food-product costs.

Aryt Alasti's picture

Hi, Rick -

Hi, Rick -

I wasn't able to keep up with my email over the weekend, so didn't see the Wired article until today. Actually, because a lot of the "field corn" is being used for animal feed, the biofuel mandates' demands have raised costs for producers of farm animals and dairy products. Additionally, with both corn and soy, there are the impacts to ecosystems, food availability, and carbon sequestration of land being dedicated to those crops because of high prices, which otherwise would have been used for other crops or livestock, resulting in other lands newly being utilized for the precluded purposes, and/or costs for other food products being higher. This is is more prevalent in some other parts.of the world, but if we want to model sustainable practices, those areas must be taken into account. 

Demand for soy in the U.S. has contributed to continuing deforestation in the Amazon - despite Brazilian government restrictions on soy as a crop on newly lumbered lands - because the soy is being grown on former grazing lands, and forests are then being cut to create new pastures.

Soy is used in many foodstuffs, and for vegetarians is an important source of nutrients. The use of it and corn for animal feed contributes to water-reserve depletions, wastage of land area in a world with an ever-increasing population, and exacerbated carbon emissions. On top of that, carbon life-cycle analyses for soy-based biodiesel do not look good.

Cellulosic biofuels  have promise, but the Wired article's advocacy for use of "marginal lands" leaves open the question of just where are all these lands which supposedly would be available for production at scale. The same is an issue for "purpose-grown" woody crops.

Some articles on these topics which may be of interest:




Rick Shankman's picture



No worries about corn or soy for renewables.  Firstly, "#2 / yellow field corn / yellow dent corn" (wikipedia) is what is used for ethanol production and is not fit (or used) for human consumption - it tastes like cardboard if you try to eat it.  Only 1% of corn yields in the U.S. are destined for human consumption anyway.  Secondly, soy is an anti-nutrient foodstuff, produced in abundance.

See... Five Ethanol Myths, Busted

Aryt Alasti's picture

The comments by Raymond

The comments by Raymond Pierrhumbert at the end of the Guardian article ignore the climate-impact "tipping points" (such has hastened melting of ice, thawing of tundra, passing of critical temperature thresholds in air and oceans, potential alteration of ocean currents,  and associated phenomena) to which relatively short-term methane burdens in the atmosphere will contribute substantially.

Aryt Alasti's picture

I saw also in MIT's proposal

I saw also in MIT's proposal that although the new installations are expected to reduce carbon emissions by 10%, the expectation is that the university will be growing sufficiently so that the end result will be the same emissions as today!

Renewable energy would indeed be far preferable, although perhaps not ethanol from corn or biodiesel from soybeans, as there are big food-supply and ecosystem impacts to scaling up both, while soy-based biodiesel's full carbon life-cycle tally is no better than that of regular diesel.

Rick Shankman's picture

...regarding the fugitive

...regarding the fugitive methane issue...

"With the US responsible for as much as 60% of global methane emissions growth, it’s critical that the country reduce natural gas use as quickly as possible, said Robert Howarth, a Cornell University ecologist and methane researcher who is unaffiliated with the Harvard study."

See... US 'likely culprit' of global spike in methane emissions over last decade

So, the MIT climate action proposal for the next 20 years?  Build a new and bigger co-generation plant to burn more methane; this, while "partnering" with the methane company to deliver more methane to other businesses in the area around campus (so they can burn more methane).

Aryt Alasti's picture

That "Your Mapper" site is

That "Your Mapper" site is fantastic. 

The story from MIT is that they've been using gas for "co-generation," with plants running on fuel oil for 20-30 days per year when use of gas wasn't possible for whatever reason. Obviously, at the least there should have been a switch to low-sulfur fuel oil long ago.

In May, the university got approval from the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection to build a new co-generation plant (in a new building), and to convert five power plants to use of the low-sulfur #2 oil, so long as "best available control technology" is used to scrub pollutants, and the fuel is used for no more than 168 hours per year (MIT's goal is 2-3 days per year, for testing and as back-up fuel in case of an emergency).

The big problem with all of this is that the new gas plant - to be finished in 2020 - is expected to last for the next 20 years. There's no indication that any thought has been given to the issue of fugitive methane as an additional atmospheric carbon burden resulting from use of gas. In committing so strongly to gas as an energy source, MIT has an obligation to dedicate major resources to the fugitive-methane problem. Although the utilities people claim to be open to new and better alternatives hereafter, the use of gas is being "locked in" by this project.

When September's energy-ethics conference takes place (assuming that's still to be happening), I would hope that the issue of partnering with energy and fuel providers which have nefarious histories of pursuing their financial interests at the expense of humanity's future will be foremost on the agenda.


Rick Shankman's picture

Curt, this isn't about

Curt, this isn't about packing MIT's rooftops with solar panels or state regulators placing barriers on solar development; it's about MIT burning the nastiest sulfur-laden goop for 20 years and "partnering" with a fossil fuel distribution company that openly lobbies against solar development.  All this, while claiming to be a champion of environmental defense and making pleas to the individuals of the MIT community to green their personal behaviors.

In short, it's about hypocrisy and betrayal of those at the Institue working to advance solar technologies and fighting against anthropogenic climate change by advocating for a shift from use of fossil fuels to renewables for power generation.

Curt Newton's picture

Regarding MIT's energy needs

Regarding MIT's energy needs and local solar deployment: from what I understand, the MIT campus has a couple of characteristics that make local / rooftop solar impractical as a substantial part of campus energy.  In part, that's why MIT elected last year for a big solar power purchase agreement to build out a massive solar farm in North Carolina. 

1) MIT is in a geographically constrained dense urban environment.  From what I've heard, it would need many times the total acreage of this real estate blanketed in panels to meet the demand

2) The energy intensive nature of its labs and research require way more electricity than your average liberal arts college

None of this is to say that MIT shouldn't be deploying as much rooftop solar as it can, and that state regulators shouldn't be placing these artificial barriers on solar - just that it's going to be limited in how much of the total campus energy solar could provide.

Rick Shankman's picture

Additional reading on Climate

Additional reading on Climate Action MIT Style...

From the MIT CUP website, regarding elements of the submitted MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change:

"MIT has partnered with Eversource to make the [MIT] dedicated transmission gas line available to Ever source through a regulating station inside the new [MIT cogeneration] plant. This new regulating station will supplement and back up the existing station on Third Street and will improve natural gas availability to the area of Cambridge around MIT."

Now, this quote from Wikipedia, on MIT's natural gas supply "partner" Eversource...

"In 2015, Eversource fought the rooftop solar industry and supported anti-solar policies. In Massachusetts, they staffed the State House with lobbyists in order to end legislation promoting growth of the solar industry. During the 2015 legislative session in New Hampshire, Eversource opposed an increase to the state's solar net metering cap. New Hampshire's cap is lower than all neighboring states....

While Eversource reported that its electric transmission earnings were up 80 percent in Q2 2015, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is now investigating the utility for having transmission rates that appear to be “unjust, unreasonable and unduly discriminatory or preferential”. Meanwhile, the potential for rooftop solar to prevent the need for new transmission lines is growing and Eversource wants to cap rooftop solar growth in the state.

In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey testified in March, 2017 before the DPU urging It to deny Eversource’s proposed $300 Million rate increase. In her testimony, she challenged the need for Eversource’s rate increase, noting NSTAR’s and WMECo’s high returns over the last few years.

Referencing NSTAR’s 2015 return of more than 13 percent, Attorney General Healey told the DPU that “[l]ast year, no state public utility commission in the country allowed a return that high.” Between 2010 and 2015, Eversource’s shareholders of common stock received a cumulative total return (including quarterly dividends and the change in the market price per share) of 89 percent."

So, could this be why there won't be extensive solar infrastructure investment on the roofs of MIT?