WHITTIER, Alaska — The Sapphire Princess docked in this deep-water port this month, unloading its passengers and taking on 2,600 more guests headed first to Glacier Bay and eventually to Vancouver, B.C. Every day of that trip, the cruise ship will emit the same amount of sulfur dioxide as 13.1 million cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and as much soot as 1.06 million cars.
But starting Aug. 1, the Sapphire Princess and every other large ship traveling within 200 miles of the coasts of the United States and Canada will have to burn cleaner fuel.
These new restrictions — which will phase out the world's dirtiest transportation fuel in U.S. waters — represent one of the Barack Obama administration's most ambitious, and least-noticed, anti-pollution programs. But they have prompted a major counteroffensive from the cruise industry as well as several lawmakers, who argue that they will raise costs for vacationers.
For years, large ships have burned a heavy fuel with 2,000 times or more the amount of sulfur as the diesel fuel used by trucks, locomotives, construction equipment and small marine vessels. The new rule requires large ships to cut the sulfur content of their fuel, which now averages 2.7 percent, down to 1 percent next month; in 2015 it must drop to 0.1 percent.
The EPA estimates that the new rules will avoid between 12,000 and 31,000 premature deaths each year by 2030, with the benefits outweighing the costs 95 to 1. Put another way, when the stricter limit goes into effect in 2015 it will be akin to taking 12.7 million cars off the road per day and eliminating their sulfur dioxide emissions, or the soot from 900,000 cars.
While shippers will maintain their routes even if fuel prices rise, every major cruise line is rethinking whether it will need to scale back on some itineraries in order to control costs. Even the companies that have touted their environmental credentials the most — Disney Cruise Line and Miami-based Royal Caribbean, for example — are lobbying the EPA to reconsider how it enforces the new rules. Cruise industry officials say they may have little choice but to explore routes outside the Emissions Control Area at some points in their itineraries to save money.
William Becker of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies said that state and local officials need the limits to meet stricter federal air quality requirements over the next decade.