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's Energy Strategy):
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 the 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.
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 just now are figuring out now how truly 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.
Remember that 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 investments in MIT's coffers, are we to believe they couldn't splurge for cleaner fuel all this time? How much in 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 situation possible at such an enlightened scientific Institute dedicated to climate action?
Perhaps this is the case because there is a big difference between empty climate rhetoric and meaningful climate action.
It appears to me that the first step in MIT's "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 climate community's 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, here at MIT.