Gov. Martin O'Malley has interceded with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of Carnival Cruise Lines after the company threatened to pull its business from Baltimore over a pending air-quality regulation that would require large, ocean-going ships to burn cleaner fuel.
O'Malley spoke twice with Bob Perciasepe, acting EPA administrator, since late May to support Carnival's request for what the governor's press secretary called a waiver from the agency's cleaner-fuel mandate.
The EPA says the requirement, which calls for the use of cleaner-burning fuel in coastal waters, could significantly reduce air pollution not just along the coast but far inland. The cruise industry has warned of potential cutbacks in cruises and job losses because of higher costs.
O'Malley "picked up the phone right away" after learning that Carnival had told state port officials it was considering ending its weekly cruises out of Baltimore as early as next year as a result of the regulation, said his press secretary, Takirra Winfield.
Carnival wanted O'Malley's help in getting the EPA to expedite a review of its plan, because the decision could affect whether it schedules cruises from Baltimore next year and beyond, said Maryland Port Administration spokesman Richard Scher.
"If jobs are at stake, the governor is going to go to bat for those jobs," Winfield said.
But Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington environmental group, said O'Malley let himself be used by the nation's largest cruise line in what he called "an attempt to squeeze the EPA and to try to intimidate them."
"What I find absolutely deplorable is that a big polluter like Carnival in effect is trying to use the people of Maryland as pawns in this battle to try to relax life-saving clean-air requirements," O'Donnell said. "What surprises me a little bit is that O'Malley fell for this so easily."
Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruise lines operate one vessel each from Baltimore, sailing to such places as Bermuda, the Bahamas and Canada. Their two ships support 220 direct jobs, state officials say, and spending by cruise passengers, the companies and their suppliers pumps $90 million a year into the region's economy.
"This is a lot of jobs and this is a lot of revenue," Winfield said. "The governor took this seriously and wanted to do everything that he could here to try to get some assistance, keeping in mind that this is a huge deal for our economy."
Carnival did not respond to inquiries about whether it was looking to pull the Carnival Pride from Baltimore. Neither would it discuss the impact of the clean-fuel requirement.
Company spokesman Vance Gulliksen said in an email that Carnival and other cruise lines have been "exploring alternative compliance" with the EPA, including development and installation of a new type of pollution scrubbers on ships that he said would meet or exceed air-quality standards.
Gulliksen said Carnival plans to continue making voyages from Baltimore to the Bahamas and the Caribbean through April but is reviewing its plans after that for several cruise programs, including those from Baltimore. An announcement is expected by the end of this month, he said.
The cruise industry has been pressing the EPA since last year to soften federal requirements that all large cargo and passenger ships burn progressively cleaner fuel in an "emission control area" that extends up to 200 nautical miles out to sea. Alaska has filed a lawsuit challenging the fuel mandate.
The EPA adopted the rule to comply with pollution reductions called for by the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations. Last August, ships in U.S. coastal waters were required to start burning fuel containing a maximum of 1 percent sulfur. By 2015, the sulfur content will have to be reduced by 90 percent. Cruise ships are particularly affected by the mandate, because much — and sometimes all — of their time is spent in coastal waters.
The agency estimated that by 2020, the reduced emissions of particulate and smog-forming pollution from shipping would prevent 5,500 to 14,000 premature deaths, avoid nearly 4,000 emergency room visits and save more than $100 billion in health care, lost work and other costs.
"The big diesel engines on cruise ships are a big source of particulate matter and sulfur emissions that make particulate matter," said Russell Dickerson, a professor in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Maryland, College Park. They also emit nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the formation of summertime smog. Depending on which way the winds are blowing, ship emissions can be carried far up the heavily populated East Coast, he said.
Most cruise ships and other large ocean-going vessels consume huge quantities of fuel and burn what's known as "bunker," a relatively inexpensive grade with many impurities.
"It's the dirtiest stuff out there," said Pamela Campos of the Environmental Defense Fund, with many times higher levels of polluting impurities than the diesel fuel used by buses and trucks. "It's basically what's left over after you refine everything else out."
Last summer, when the 1 percent sulfur limit took effect, several cruise and shipping lines complained of being unable to find enough fuel. They also told officials they were paying 15 percent to 40 percent more for it. With a tighter standard looming in 2015, some industry officials have warned of sharply higher prices and cutbacks in U.S. cruises.