Towns take on new federal maritime emission limits

Smoke comes out of a Celebrity Cruise Line  ship stack as it sails into Juneau today (July 30). New EPA rules require cleaner fuel and fewer emissions.

Some Alaska communities are pushing back against a new requirement that ships sailing within 200 miles of the coast burn cleaner fuel. They say the rule, which goes into effect Wednesday, Aug.1st, will hurt cruise traffic and increase shipping costs.

One community is Skagway, where tourism dominates the summer economy.

“It takes years to get a cruise line. And it takes a second to drive one away,” says Steve Hites, owner of the Skagway Streetcar Company and a member of the town’s Port Commission.

He’s telling Skagway’s assembly about new air-emission limits set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. They cover ships in coastal Emission Control Areas, also called ECAs.

Hites says cleaner fuel is more expensive, and cruise lines will pass that on to customers.

“The cost of the ECA on a cruise ticket could be $150, or three times the cost of the Alaska head tax. We lost five big ships because of the head tax. By extrapolation, will we lose 15 ships?” he asks.


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Skagway’s assembly passed a resolution Hites asked for by a unanimous vote. It calls for state officials to fight the new requirement, which lowers sulfur dioxide emissions within 200 miles of shore.

The northern Lynn Canal community is not alone. Haines and Sitka are among other Southeast towns passing similar resolutions. (Read the Sitka resolution.)

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan also issued a statement saying the rules could impact barge traffic. And U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski took to her chamber’s floor to point out that rural Alaska would see the highest price hikes from more expensive shipping.

“The EPA’s one-size fits all approach to environment regulation. Perhaps you can’t quite shoehorn that in, in all situations,” Murkowski says.

The statements and resolutions came after the Parnell administration sued the EPA and other federal agencies to block or amend the rules.

The industry is also fighting the EPA. Alaska Cruise Association President John Binkley says ships might shift to other countries without such regulations.

“Alaska is an expensive destination because there are long distances to travel. So fuel becomes a much more important component of the overall cost of the ship,” Binkley says.

The EPA wouldn’t provide anyone for an interview. But a press release says sulfur pollution from bunker fuel, used by cruise ships and some barge lines, has been linked to respiratory illnesses. It says children, the elderly and asthmatics are among those most at risk. (Read some history of the emissions issue.)

Some Alaskans support that approach.

“Compared to having a tremendous amount of air pollution in Alaska waters, personally, I think that it’s worth it,” says Gershon Cohen, a Haines clean-water-and-air activist who’s been involved in cruise ship issues.

“It’s not going to come out of the cruise industry’s pocket one way or another. They’re going to pass that cost on the consumers. And for the thousands that the consumers are spending, I don’t think they’re really going to ever notice,” Cohen says.

Cohen says the real issue should be reducing dangerous pollution. He says it’s clearly visible as ships sail between Skagway, Juneau and points south and west.

“There is a pall over Lynn Canal. There is a tremendous amount of air pollution there. A lot of folks in Skagway are concerned. They saying the air pollution is killing the trees above Dewey Lake. So, if we’re killing people in our coastal communities from air pollution from ships, that this is probably like a pretty good idea to take care of it and make them use cleaner fuel,” he says.

The cruise industry says it will comply, but wants the EPA to enact an alternative plan that would cost less money.

While some barge lines, such as Totem Ocean Trailer Express, will be affected, others will not.

“In the Southeast market, Ketchikan all the way to Haines and Skagway, no,” says Kevin Anderson, president of Seattle-based Alaska Marine Lines. “Our tugboats burn diesel and these regulations are not going to affect us. So there’s not going to be an added fuel surcharge because of that.”

The state ferry system is also not affected. Marine highway chief Mike Neussl says the change was made years ago.

“It wasn’t a big switch and the switch that the marine highways made was not in direct response to this upcoming implementation of the ECA,” he says.

There’s another way the emission limits could affect shipping and travel. Binkley of the cruise association suggests they could increase competition among buyers.

“There will be more competition for the ultra-low-sulfur diesel, like is burned in trucks and whatnot. Presumably the price will go up for that as there’s more demand for that part of the barrel of oil that’s refined,” Binkley says.

Canada and a number of other nations are also imposing the new standards, which are part of an international treaty.

Opponents worry that impacts will be far worse in 2015. That’s when the EPA will further limit fuel sulfur content by a factor of 10.