The proposed Emission Control Area (ECA) for North America will go into full effect on January 1, 2015, after a first stage that will go “live” on August 1, 2012.

The issue was a relevant topic during a dedicated ECA panel discussion at the 2012 Cruise Canada New England Symposium being held in Quebec City.

The rules, which require cruise lines to burn clean, more expensive fuel within 200 miles of the U.S. and Canadian coasts, have put a looming cloud over the Canada/New England region, with most itineraries sailed within that 200 mile range.

Greg Wirtz, president of North West and Canada Cruise Association described the ECA as a “serious issue facing the industry with enormous consequences.”

Cruise lines and industry groups continue to work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which is behind the new rules, but so far, nothing has been announced in terms of a solution for the cruise lines despite various proposed plans.

Bud Darr, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), pointed to a map of the North American ECA, which he said had major inconsistencies, with missing ECA zones around Alaska, and U.S. territories.

“I can’t make sense of that,” said Darr, pointing to part of Alaska that is not covered by the ECA and sees heavy shipping trade from the Pacific Rim.

Darr noted that CLIA is trying to work with the current rule set, and not “destroy” it. He listed alternatives, such as exhaust gas scrubbers, alternative fuels and non-conventional propulsion, averaging or other operational means, and “other means not yet identified.”

But so far scrubber technology has not had enough of an effect to encourage cruises lines to install the heavy and expensive equipment on their ships. Alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), are still years off.

“There are real technical challenges with LNG,” said Tom Dow, vice president of public affairs for Carnival Corporation.

Thus, fuel costs could force cruise lines to move ships, and multiple companies confirmed to Cruise Industry News at the Symposium that they were effectively crunching the numbers for 2015 and beyond.

By 2015, .1 percent sulfur is the mandate for North America, and by 2020, the world mandate will be .5 percent.

A solution could be weighted averaging, focusing sulfur emission reductions where they provide the greatest benefits, added Darr.

Thus, CLIA has come up with an emissions calculator software tool which takes into account how a ship operates on an itinerary, emissions profile, what fuels it burns, weather, atmospheric chemistry and more.

An example Pacific Northwest itinerary using the software, as a simulation, out-performed the ECA in terms of emissions by some 35 percent, Darr said, without going into specific detail as to how.

“We’re optimistic that this could be a significant part of the solution,” Darr continued.

Dow said Carnival has not taken a public media approach to the issue, choosing to work with the EPA and Transport Canada privately.

“When we meet with EPA, frequently … the most recent meetings are most cordial … they accept several of the facts we’ve presented to them,” said Dow, noting economic impact figures, cruise-related jobs in destinations and ports, in addition to the true cost of fuel.

Dow talked about air equivalency attainment, meaning burning clean fuel in places that need it, such as Los Angeles or Houston which already have heavy air pollution.

“We think we should focus our emissions reductions in the areas where we can do the most good,” Dow said. “(The EPA) realize there are some problems with this they haven’t thought about.”

Dow noted a study, with a total of 875,000 passenger visits in Canada/New England, comparing the impact of the ECA to the Alaska head tax, using a real-world example in discussions with government authorities, where a region imposed a cost on ships that other areas did not have – thus driving vessels away.

“You take what happened in Alaska and multiply it by three. You have a good example,” Dow stated, talking about the potential effect in 2015 on Canada/New England.