JUNEAU — More than 1 million cruise ship passengers are expected to visit Alaska this year, but industry officials fear new fuel standards intended to limit pollution from large ships could drive vessels away and lower that number later.
This will be the first full cruise season in Alaska under rules that require cargo carriers and cruise ships to use a low-sulfur fuel within 200 miles of U.S. and Canadian shores. The U.S. agreed to the standards as part of an international treaty.
While the rules affect much of the North American coast and Hawaii, officials in Alaska argue they will have a disproportionate effect here, and they have sued to prevent the restrictions from being enforced in waters off Alaska’s coast.
A federal judge has yet to weigh in on the lawsuit filed by the state shortly before the new standards took effect Aug. 1. Meanwhile, the first ships of this season have begun arriving in Alaska.
The rules adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “will increase the cost of operating cruise ships, and increased costs translate into fewer cruise ship visitors,” attorneys for the state argued in the lawsuit.
The rules also will increase the cost of shipping cargo to Alaska, the attorneys say. “In all of these ways, EPA’s rules will have a substantial and harmful effect of Alaska’s citizens and economy.”
According to the EPA, ships are major contributors to emissions from mobile sources in the U.S. and Canada, and most are foreign-flagged or registered outside North America. By 2020, the new standards — set to become more stringent in 2015 — will cut emissions of nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter and sulfur oxides by 23 percent, 74 percent, and 86 percent, respectively, below predicted levels if the rules were not in place, the agency said.
The EPA estimates the overall cost of implementation to be $3.2 billion in North America, while the estimated dollar value for health benefits associated with the change could be up to $110 billion in the U.S. alone by 2020.
“Alaskans depend on clean air to stay healthy, and we need the cruise industry to do its part,” said Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for the conservation group Oceana. He likened the industry’s complains to “having a houseguest who leaves all of his trash in your yard and then complains when you ask him to pick it up.”
Cruise ships must use the more expensive fuel for the duration of their trips to Alaska, given they remain within the 200-mile limit the entire time, unlike ships serving other cruise destinations like Mexico or the Caribbean, said David Peikin, a spokesman for the trade group Cruise Lines International Association. He said in an email that ticket prices have risen an average of $88 per person per voyage to Alaska as compared with before the rules took effect.
The EPA said there are ongoing talks with stakeholders about flexibility and future plans to meet the tightening standards.
A cruise can cost thousands of dollars, and for many people the increased cost won’t be much of a factor, said John Binkley, president of the Alaska Cruise Association. But it could turn away other more “price conscious” travelers and eventually make it harder for companies to fill ships, leaving Alaska less competitive, he said.
The fuel rules “imposed a higher economic penalty on Alaska than any other state because of the fact that we’re so dependent on waterborne transportation, and the environmental benefits were less than any other state because we have such a small population and such vast areas,” Binkley said.
The last several years, the Alaska cruise industry has benefited from the rebounding U.S. economy, a 2010 rollback of a state head tax on cruise ship passengers, and a robust tourism marketing budget, Binkley said.
Twenty-eight ships are expected this year, up one from 2012. About 937,000 cruise ship passengers visited last year. The recent high was 1.03 million in 2008, according to a state-commissioned report.