Cruise-ship industry fighting EPA's cleaner-fuel rule

McClatchy NewspapersMay 1, 2012 

— The heavy fuel that oceangoing vessels burn adds so much to air pollution hundreds of miles inland that the United States joined with Canada during the George W. Bush administration to ask the International Maritime Organization to create an emissions-control area along the coasts. Large ships would be required to reduce pollution dramatically in a zone 200 miles out to sea along all the coasts of North America, mainly by using cleaner fuel.

The cargo-shipping industry supported the stringent emission reductions. The cruise-ship industry, however, wants an emissions-averaging plan that would allow it to burn the same heavy fuel it always has used in some areas, and it’s lobbying Congress for help.

The industry’s lobby group in Washington has gotten Democratic and Republican lawmakers to press the Environmental Protection Agency to look favorably on the industry’s averaging plan. The EPA is pushing back, saying the industry’s plan would lead to an increase in emissions. For now, the EPA is unyielding, but pressure is building.

The emissions-control area goes into effect in August. The International Maritime Organization plan requires fuel with less sulfur inside the zone, with reductions phased in through 2015. President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to the approach in 2006.

“The U.S. government has been firmly behind protecting its citizens from shipping pollution through negotiations with the IMO both through the Bush administration and the Obama administration, so it’s not a partisan issue,” said David Marshall of the Clean Air Task Force, an advocacy organization.

The EPA estimated that when the emissions-control plan is fully implemented, as many as 31,000 premature deaths per year will be prevented. Cleaner air would mean fewer emergency-room visits for people with asthma and other lung diseases. The new standards also would reduce acid rain on coastal forests, lakes and crops.

The agreement requires large ships to drop the sulfur content of their fuel from 15,000 parts per million to 10,000 parts per million in August, and to 1,000 parts per million in 2015. It allows alternative approaches that get equivalent amounts of emission reductions, such as exhaust scrubbers.

Cleaner fuel costs more than the sulfur-rich bunker oil that ships use today. The EPA estimated that the price increase on a seven-day Alaska cruise would be 1.5 percent to 6 percent.

The online trade publication Sustainable Shipping reported that cruise companies don’t want to pass on too much of the cost for fear of reducing customer demand, so the industry’s profits might decline. A study for the industry projected fewer cruises to Alaska, Canada and the Caribbean, as well as job losses.

Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world’s biggest cruise company, reported $1.9 billion in profits last year. Carnival spokesman Aly Bello-Cabreriza declined to comment and referred questions to the industry lobby group, Cruise Lines International Association. Other cruise companies also declined to comment.

Cruise Lines International Association has proposed a complicated emissions-averaging plan that would allow ships to continue to burn high-sulfur fuel sometimes. An advantage would be lower costs, the association’s director of environmental and health programs, Charles Darr, said in an April PowerPoint presentation.

The method would allow a ship to vary its emissions based on such issues as weather conditions and location. Ships would switch to cleaner fuels near heavily populated areas.

Officials of the EPA and the Coast Guard opposed the Cruise Lines International Association plan in a letter March 12 to International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu.

“After analysis, we believe the cruise lines proposal is unacceptable because it would result in overall higher emissions and doesn’t meet public expectations of uniform delivery of health and environmental benefits for citizens of the United States,” wrote Jeffrey G. Lantz, the Coast Guard’s director of commercial regulations and standards, and Margo Tsirigotis Oge, the director of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality.

They asked Sekimizu to remind the International Maritime Organization officials who are writing the guidelines that the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships requires that any alternative to cleaner fuel reduce emissions by the same amount.

Michael McGarry, a spokesman for the cruise lines association, said in an e-mail that its proposal did fit within those provisions. It would focus “the greatest emissions reductions where they will deliver the greatest public health and welfare benefits,” he said.

The EPA has given Congress the same argument it made in the letter to the International Maritime Organization secretary-general. Agency official James Hanlon testified last week before a House of Representatives Transportation Committee panel that the population-averaging scheme would mean a net increase in emissions and “a disproportionate environmental burden and risk for citizens in different communities, depending on their population density.”

It made the same case in a letter in February to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Murkowski backs the cruise industry’s proposal that it use high-sulfur fuel when its ships pass sparsely populated areas, said her spokesman, Robert Dillon. She also wants Alaska and Hawaii to be exempt from the pollution-reduction requirements. The 200-mile zone set by the maritime organization covers the tourism-heavy Southeastern panhandle and the Gulf of Alaska, but not the state’s western and Arctic coasts.

Murkowski thinks there’s no evidence of air pollution risks to people in Alaska, and she wants the EPA to conduct air-quality studies, Dillon said. She says the emissions-control plan would harm Alaska’s important tourism industry and increase the cost of goods brought to the state by ship.

“Sen. Murkowski also believes the rule is faulty because it greatly underestimates the economic impacts on Alaska,” Dillon said.

Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state also have written to the EPA asking it to consider the industry’s views. Nelson was the top Senate recipient of cruise-ship industry donations last year. He received $19,200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

A bipartisan group of House members, led by John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sent the EPA a letter of support for the cruise line association’s plan in March.

California started phasing in lower-sulfur fuel requirements for ships in 2009 in an area about 28 miles offshore. It plans to align its rules with the North American standards.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency also supports those standards. It said in a letter to the Transportation subcommittee last week that Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., and Vancouver, British Columbia, had been preparing for the EPA plan for years. Seattle, for example, has provided financial incentives for oceangoing vessels to burn low-sulfur fuel while in port.

The World Shipping Council, which represents ocean cargo ships, supported the stringent emissions controls adopted by the maritime organization, Chris Koch, the council’s president and CEO, told the Transportation Committee panel.

“So long as 1 percent sulfur fuel is reasonably available, our members certainly intend to comply,” he said.

Ships that carry cargo along the coasts but don’t cross oceans have asked that the emissions-control area be reduced for them to 50 miles offshore, exempting about 90 percent of their travel from the emissions requirements.

Paul Cozza, the president of the shipping company CSL International, told the panel that a study his industry had commissioned showed that there wasn’t much air-quality benefit from cleaner fuel beyond 39 miles offshore.

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