A United Nations body overseeing international shipping adopted rules Friday requiring freight ships to burn low-sulfur fuels within 200 nautical miles of much of North America's coastline.

Beginning in 2015, ships calling at most U.S. and Canadian ports will be required to use cleaner fuels or adopt technology to dramatically cut diesel exhaust when traveling in the emission "buffer zone."

The International Maritime Organization adopted the rules Friday in London, nearly three years after California implemented a similar plan extending 24 miles from the state's coast. That effort is now considered instrumental in helping develop technology and test the impact of low-sulfur fuels in ships.

State Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, who rallied 55 state lawmakers to formally support the IMO effort, said the initiative will save hundreds of billions in health care costs in coming years by reducing hospital visits from people suffering from respiratory and heart ailments exacerbated by air pollution.

She also praised the IMO's governing board for applying the rules to most of the two countries. The northern borders of Canada and North Alaska are exempt.

"This will have a huge impact on cleaning up our air in Long Beach and Los Angeles and at seaport communities across the country," Lowenthal said. "People have been breathing this toxic air for decades, and the impacts are well-documented with cancer, asthma and other


illnesses. It's a strong step."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the rule will cut deadly particulate exhaust 85 percent while also slashing nitrogen oxides 80 percent. In 2015, ships will be required to burn fuel with a sulfur content no higher than 1,000-


By comparison, cars and trucks in the U.S. can burn diesel fuel with a sulfur content no higher than 15 parts per million.

"The sulfur, particulate emissions and other harmful pollutants from large ships reach from our ports to communities hundreds of miles inland, bringing with them health, environmental and economic burdens," EPA Director Lisa Jackson said in a statement.

California plans to continue enforcing its own clean-fuel rule until the IMO regulations kick in.

The push for a clean-fuel initiative began in earnest at the Port of Long Beach in 2005, when port authorities began offering dockage discounts to shippers who slowed their speed - thus reducing emissions - within 20 nautical miles of the harbor. A few years later, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles offered deep discounts on low-sulfur fuel for ships visiting the port complex, and then began lobbying the state to enact a clean-fuel rule for all California.

In recent years, port authorities from Long Beach have also traveled across the globe speaking to shipping executives and government officials in Asia, South America and Europe about the clean-fuel initiative.

In 2008, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster joined port officials and environmentalists for a speech before the IMO board urging the body to adopt cleaner shipping practices where possible.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District estimates freight ships visiting Long Beach and Los Angeles spew more than 7,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 4,500 tons of sulfur oxides and 675 tons of carbon monoxides into local skies each year.

The new rules should dramatically cut those numbers from a port complex the AQMD lists as the largest fixed source of air pollution in the state.

kristopher.hanson@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1466