The Sapphire Princess is one of the cruise ships that will be affected by stricter federal air pollution rules taking effect Aug. 1. (Courtesy of Princess Cruises )

The gleaming white Sapphire Princess docked in this deep-water port this month, unloading its passengers and taking on another 2,600 guests headed first to Glacier Bay and, eventually, Vancouver, B.C. Every day of that trip the cruise ship — whose Web site 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 the 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 ocean-going vessels for basic foodstuffs.

“This is the sleeping giant no one is paying attention to,” said S. 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 Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The Bush administration proposed limiting sulfur dioxide emissions for ships in 2007; the International Maritime Organization three years later adopted the joint U.S-Canada proposal to create an “Emissions Control Area” within 200 miles of shore. Countries bordering the Baltic and North Sea enacted similar limits in the late 1990s.

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. 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.

The container and vehicle shipping industry, which spends less time within the 200-mile zone than the cruise industry, has indicated that it can meet the new standards. But a couple of firms serving Alaska, including Totem Ocean Trailer Express, predict their fuel costs could eventually rise 25 percent as a result.

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.

“The impact of these regulations, moving forward, potentially can be devastating to the public, especially those in rural Alaska,” Murkowski said, noting that the cost of shipping already inflates prices for everything from milk to laundry detergent. “You cannot afford a 25 percent increase in a box of Tide, the cost of lumber. We cannot afford a 25 percent increase in the price of goods in our state.”

She said the agency should sample Alaska’s air quality before imposing the emissions restrictions.

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 Royal Caribbean, for example — are lobbying the EPA to reconsider how it enforces the new rules.

Bud Darr, vice president for technical and regulatory affairs at the Cruise Lines International Association, said his members are worried whether there’s “sufficient quantity of fuel, particularly as it pertains in the Pacific Northwest” to meet the standards. While the EPA has issued guidelines on how firms can document their inability to purchase fuel, Darr said the potential shortage would spike costs.

Cruise companies have proposed that they be allowed to burn higher-sulfur fuel at some points in the 200-mile control zone while curbing emissions elsewhere.

Disney Cruise Line spokeswoman Rena Langley said her company is “committed to minimizing our impact on the environment. . . . Along with the rest of the industry, we continue to explore alternative approaches to [Emission Control Area] compliance that would achieve the same result or better.”

But the EPA, which is also fighting Alaska’s lawsuit, has rejected the cruise industry’s proposal, saying it would cut the program’s health benefits in half.

“There are opportunities for us to do some compliance measures that have flexibility,” McCarthy said. “What we’re not looking forward to is losing the benefits of this rule.”

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, tribal liaison for the Alaska Wilderness League, said Arctic residents have already experienced the negative affects of cruise and other marine traffic.

“We’re very concerned about the emissions they’re putting in the air,” Ahtuangaruak said. “We’re already seeing an increase of respiratory illness.”

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. Princess Cruise Lines spokeswoman Juliet Benson, who noted that her company pioneered the practice of plugging into onshore electrical power while in port, wrote in an e-mail that Princess anticipates “some future changes” to its routes.

“The cost of fuel plays a key role in our itinerary planning, and we balance offering the most desirable routes for our passengers with ensuring maximization of fuel efficiency,” she said.

While the new limits will pose some challenges, Becker said that state and local officials — who lack jurisdiction over ships — need them in order to meet stricter federal air quality requirements over the next decade. “We will not be able to meet the federal health-based standards without the benefits of this program,” he said. “They’re that significant.”