WHITTIER, Alaska -- The gleaming white Sapphire Princess docked in this deepwater port this month, unloading its passengers and taking on 2,600 more guests headed first to Glacier Bay and eventually to Vancouver, British Columbia. Every day of that trip, the cruise ship -- whose website invites passengers to see Alaska's "pristine landscapes" -- 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 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 and Alaskans who depend on oceangoing vessels for basic foodstuffs.
"This is the sleeping giant no one is paying attention to," said William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which lobbied for the new rule and represents officials from state and local air agencies across the country.
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 by 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. Air pollutants from burning ship fuel off the Pacific Coast contribute to lung disease and affect air quality as far away as North Dakota, according to agency officials.
"These important standards will lower emissions from ships and help safeguard our port communities and cities hundreds of miles inland," said Gina McCarthy, who heads the EPA's air and radiation office.
It is difficult to get precise estimates on what the cleaner fuel will cost, in part because its availability remains uncertain. The EPA estimates that when fully implemented the program will add $18 to the cost of shipping a 20-foot container and about $7 per day to the cost of a passenger's cruise ticket. Cruise industry analysts, however, say it could add as much as $19.46 a day per passenger. The total annual cost of implementing the rule in 2020 will be $3.2 billion, according to the EPA, weighed against between $47 billion and $110 billion in benefits.
Alaska officials are particularly worried about the program's impact, because cruise liners destined for their state will be subject to the new limits for the entire journey, and because they receive almost all their goods by ship. Alaska's attorney general filed a lawsuit July 13 challenging the federal government's right to impose such limits, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has pressed EPA officials to work out a compromise with the industry.
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 Royal Caribbean, for example -- are lobbying the EPA to reconsider how it enforces the new rules.