Michigan Charts Path To a Greener Future for Great Lakes Shipping

From the electrification of major cargo ports to sustainability improvements for Great Lakes ferries, a first-of-its-kind statewide “maritime strategy” could offer a roadmap toward a potential green future for shipping and boating in Michigan.

The strategy is set to be crafted over the coming year and a half, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy announced on Monday, June 10. The agency is kicking off the process by seeking an outside entity to take on development of the plan using a $200,000 grant.

While several existing state plans already touch on aspects of the maritime sector, there currently isn’t a document that takes a comprehensive look at commercial shipping, ferries and recreational boating, as is intended with the new strategy document, according to EGLE Great Lakes Policy Specialist Simon Belisle.

“A big component of it is helping the sector move toward low-emission or zero-emissions activities,” he said.

Marine transportation is big business in the state. Some 33 active ports handle 51.7 million tons of cargo valued at $4.1 billion annually, according to the Michigan’s Maritime and Port Facility Assistance Office.

Shipping by water is generally the least carbon intensive means of transportation per unit of weight or volume, Belisle said, but EGLE officials still recognize the industry has an impact on port communities and contributes to the state’s emissions.

While it’s too early to say what recommendations will end up in the final state maritime strategy, efforts to green shipping and boating in the Great Lakes are already underway, according to Belisle.

The Port of Detroit has mapped its current carbon emissions and outlined strategies to slash them in the coming years, while also improving air quality for surrounding neighborhoods. Its strategies include switching from diesel to biofuels and electrifying shipping vehicles, according to port’s plan, unveiled in April.

On the recreational side of things, Belisle pointed to the state’s “Fresh Coast Maritime Challenge,” a grant program helping efforts to transition watercraft from diesel to electric power and develop shoreside charging facilities at marinas.

EGLE’s Office of the Great Lakes has also supported a Lake Superior research site focused on autonomous vessels run by Michigan Technological University, according to the request for proposals the state agency issued for the development of the new maritime strategy.

The office recognizes the importance of collaboration for projects taking place on Michigan’s coasts, and the new maritime plan should help local entities working to cut carbon emissions identify potential partners, while also guiding the projects and investments of the Office of the Great Lakes, Belisle said.

Larger regional strategies already in place have similar goals to the Michigan project. The Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, an organization uniting chief executives from Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces, in 2016 adopted a strategy to boost maritime trade while cutting its environmental footprint.

The organization is now exploring biofuel applicability, working on an electrification pledge ports and carriers can sign on to, and conducting a project identifying ferries that could be early candidates for the switch to electric power, according to John Schmidt, program manager with the group’s regional maritime initiative.

In Michigan, officials are now on the hunt for an outside entity to tackle the development of the the state’s maritime strategy and an implementation plan to make it a reality. EGLE is accepting proposals through July 25.

A webinar is scheduled for 3 p.m. on June 18 for officials to present details of what they’re hoping to see with the project, explain the application process and answer questions, according to EGLE.

Belisle said the state is looking for an outside group to craft the strategy to minimize any government bias that could come with doing it in house. “We’re part of the project, but not the only part of it,” he said.

Development of the strategy will involve consultation with state and federal agencies, local governments, tribal governments, port authorities and terminal operators, among other organizations, Belisle said. Equity and environmental justice for communities that host ports and other maritime activities is also a part of the strategy’s concerns, he added.

The project itself is expected to last a year, with the completed product ready by the end of September 2025.

The maritime strategy will be released publicly. “This is not just for us at the state. This is for all Michiganders, as important as water is to all of us,” Belisle said.

Originally shared by MLive, June 12, 2024. Title updated for purpose June, 27, 2024.

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