WASHINGTON — 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 President George W. Bush's 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 lobbying 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. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to the approach in 2006.
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 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. The Port of Tampa's thriving cruise ship business could also be adversely affected.
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, said Charles Darr, the association's director of environmental and health programs,.
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.
Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state have written to the EPA asking it to consider the industry's proposal. 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.