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Off California, cargo ships get paid to go slow

A new program involving huge freighters in the waters off Southern California is offering companies cash incentives to slow down their vessels in the hopes of both reducing air pollution and protecting endangered whales from fatal collisions with those ships.

The trial program, sponsored by a group of government, nonprofit and marine industry organizations, covers commercial freighters in the Santa Barbara Channel, a busy, 130-mile-long shipping lane that's also a feeding ground for many species of whales.

According to the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District, one of the groups involved in the program, participating companies will get $2,500 per ship transiting through the channel if their vessels stay at speeds of 12 knots or less, instead of the usual 14 to 18 knots.

Air pollution is a major issue for the region. The crude oil that oceangoing ships use as fuel is hundreds of times dirtier than the diesel fuel used in highway trucks. And air pollution from those ships accounts for over half of the nitrogen oxides -- the ozone-forming smog -- found in California's Santa Barbara County.

"Few people realize that ships off our coast, especially those moving at faster speeds, are a risk to endangered whales and the quality of the air we breathe," Kristi Birney of the Environmental Defense Center said in a statement. The L.A. Times reports that six multinational shipping companies, COSCO, Hapag Lloyd, K Line, Maersk Line, Matson and United Arab Shipping, are taking part in the speed-reduction incentive program, which is patterned after a similar program in the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Shipping is a huge business along the West Coast and, with globalization, growing larger each year. Over $300 billion worth of cargo passes annually through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone and is responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs in Southern California, and an estimated 3 million supply-chain-related jobs across the U.S.

The program has enough funding to pay incentives for 16 shipping transits through the Santa Barbara Channel until the end of October. The coalition supporting the trial program is looking for additional funding to expand it.

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