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Binational study: maritime shipping more fuel-efficient, “greener” than land transportation

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Shipping goods via the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway has a “significant” fuel-economy advantage and produces less greenhouse gas than other major modes of transportation, according to a recent comparative environmental impact study.

Based on 2010 performances, the study — conducted by the Research and Traffic Group, a Canadian transportation consulting firm — found that marine vessels were able to carry cargo significantly farther than both rail and trucks using the same amount of fuel.

The study, which was released Tuesday, found that the U.S. and Canadian Great Lakes-Seaway fleet that year was 594 percent more fuel efficient than transportation by truck and 14 percent more efficient than rail.

Currently, the largest vessels on the Great Lakes — typically 1,000 feet in length — can carry 62,000 tons of cargo, consultants said, which would take 2,340 trucks or 564 rail cars to carry the same load.

Without the 2,300-mile Great Lakes-Seaway shipping system to move cargo, 7.1 million additional truck trips — including an extra 1.9 million cross-border trips — would have been required in 2010, consultants said.

Consultants also noted that in addition to even better fuel efficiency, air contaminant emissions of Great Lakes-Seaway vessels are projected to be reduced greatly after an upcoming fleet renewal.

Greenhouse gas, or carbon dioxide, emissions from trucks were 533 percent higher than the Great Lakes-Seaway system’s marine fleet, and rail would emit 19 percent more when traveling the same distance, the study found.

In 2010, marine transportation overall was the lowest emitter of nitrogen oxides — criteria air contaminants that cause smog, acid rain and other health hazards — but higher in the emission of other CACs, such as sulfur oxides and particulate matter.

“Criteria air contaminant regulations were initially focused on the truck mode, then the rail mode and are now being introduced for the marine mode,” the study said. “The marine mode has been the last mode to see CAC emissions regulations and all will take place over the 2012-2025 timeframe.”

Regulations would require upgrades resulting in nitrogen oxides emission reductions of 86 percent, sulfur oxides emission reductions of 99.9 percent and particulate matter reductions of 85 percent.

The study also found that the noise footprint of the combined Great Lakes-Seaway fleet was “negligible in comparison with that of the other modes.”

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