Go on, give it a whiff.
Go on, give it a whiff. balipadma / Getty Images

For the last few weeks, cruise ships have been sailing in and out of Puget Sound, docking at Terminal 66 just north of Pike Place Market while plumes of polluted air spill from their smokestacks for hours at a time. And if you happen to live, work, or visit Belltown while those cruise engines chug, is the air safe to breathe?

That’s the question I posed to Alex Adams, Interim Director for Maritime Sustainability at the Port of Seattle. He took a few seconds to think, and answered, “I don’t know.”

It’s not the answer I was hoping to hear. “We’re not actively monitoring air emissions,” Adams explained. “No meters are recording what’s coming out of the smokestack. … So I don’t have an answer for whether it’s safe or unsafe.”

The Port wants to eliminate all maritime emissions by 2050, but maybe don't hold your breath. The technology to do so doesn't exist.

Cruise ships present a challenging problem regarding emissions, starting with disagreement on how even to define what "emissions" are. According to Seattle Cruise Control, a local advocacy group with fewer than a dozen active members, cruises are responsible for emissions equal to a third of all air pollution generated in Seattle. According to the Port, cruises emit just 1% of Seattle’s air pollution.

Why are those numbers so different? The short answer is wildly differing ideas about what the estimates should include. Clearly the pollution coming from the stacks should be counted; but when the ship sails out to sea, at what point does the air pollution cease to be Seattle-based and become ocean-based? What about the emissions generated by vacationers flying to Seattle to board the ships? What about the trucks that carry supplies to docked boats? Modern cruise ships use a technology called “scrubbers” to spray seawater into their stacks, partially capturing and removing some chemicals from the air emissions, but that results in tanks full of toxic sludge. Is that air pollution or water pollution?

“There definitely is a problem,” says Stacy Oaks, co-lead of the Maritime Solution Team at the environmental group 350 Seattle. “What the magnitude is, we can somewhat only guess.”

The Port finds itself in an awkward position regarding air pollution. Technically, they’re not the polluters; they’re a landlord and cruise companies are their tenants. Under existing lease agreements, the Port is limited in what they can demand from cruise companies, and they have no legal authority to inspect, regulate, or fine polluters.

But what they can at least do is conduct inventories — estimates, really — of their tenants’ environmental impact. According to the most recent study, conducted in 2016, cruises produced 53,902 metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) substances. That’s where the Port gets the estimate that cruises contribute 1% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

(A wonky sidenote for readers who want to muck about in the math: The Puget Sound Maritime Air Emissions Inventory measures emissions in American short tons, which the Port converts to the more widely-used unit of metric tons — that's why you won't find the 53,902 figure in the PSEI report. One metric ton equals 1.10231 short tons. Ugh, it's so complicated! The Port says they're working on ways to make this less of an annoying math puzzle in the future.)

The Port uses a fairly expansive boundary (known as an “airshed”) when examining areas affected by cruises. For the 2016 study, the airshed extended down to Centralia and up to a Canadian mountain range, and it included both Tacoma and Vancouver, BC.

But that’s not enough, says Elizabeth Burton, a volunteer with Seattle Cruise Control. “All greenhouse gas emissions from cruise ships destabilize our climate, not just the emissions between here and Canada,” she says.

Activists formed SCC to oppose the creation of a new cruise terminal in Seattle, but they're also opposed to all cruises in general. That's a sentiment echoed by Stacy Oaks at 350 Seattle.

“Globally, we’re in an existential crisis,” Oaks says, “and cruise is a luxury leisure activity.” Many environmental groups would like to see an end to the cruise industry altogether. If it has to exist, Oaks says, there are plenty of steps the companies could take to clean up their act, such as lower-emission fuels, slower speeds, and even adding sails as a means of propulsion.

“That’s a fix that could happen,” she says. “If there was political will.”

Speaking of political will, three of the five Port of Seattle commissioners are currently up for re-election. Every candidate agrees that the Port must do more to reduce air pollution, but they differ in their ideas about how. Incumbent Peter Steinbrueck, for example, wants to use lease agreements to curtail pollution. He says he also opposed the expansion of cruise operations to Terminal 46; he’d rather see T46 used for cargo operations (which produces emissions of its own). (Update: Here is a video of Steinbrueck and Bowman both enthusiastically endorsing an expansion of cruise operations at T46 in 2019.)

Steinbrueck’s challenger, Toshiko Hasegawa, told the Stranger Election Control Board that “expanding the footprint of cruise is an absolute non-starter” and called for incentives for electric ships in lease agreements.

Incumbent Stephanie Bowman recently pushed for subsidies to electrify short-range trucks that carry cargo at the port. Her challenger, Hamdi Mohamed, is calling for greater transparency with port-adjacent communities regarding emissions, as well as legislation that would require the use of electrical power over fossil fuels.

Incumbent Ryan Calkins, who faces no serious opposition, wants to go even further: He told the SECB that he wants to see Terminal 46 turned into “an energy terminal” where 800-foot-tall offshore wind towers are constructed and sent out to sea.

They’re all good ideas — they just need community pressure to actually happen.

For now, Seattle Cruise Control’s Burton says that the organization has no specific demands regarding cruises, “beyond urging the Port of Seattle to envision a healthier Salish Sea.”

Fortunately, that’s exactly what the Port is doing.

“The goal is to phase out emissions by 2050,” says Ryann Child, the Port’s senior environmental management specialist. “We’re starting that planning now. … And there’s another goal to address infrastructure.”

While the Port is limited in their authority over cruise companies, they can provide incentives; and like a landlord upgrading the wiring in a house, they can choose how to prioritize infrastructure. One of the biggest upgrades currently in progress is providing electrical power at Terminal 66; if boats can plug in there, like they currently can at Terminal 91, they won’t have to run their engines while berthed.

“It’s comparable to when you would have a truck or car idling,” Child says. Each time a ship can plug in instead of idling, she says, it reduces its emissions by an amount equivalent to a car driving from Seattle to New York thirty times. (And each time a ship can’t plug in, that’s the amount of pollution unleashed into the air over Belltown.)

Currently, only one of Seattle’s two cruise terminals is electrified — Terminal 91. They expect Terminal 66 to come online in a few years, hopefully with some support from federal stimulus funding. Until then, maybe don’t breathe too deeply when ships are present.

The Port is also working on an updated air emissions inventory, due out next year, that will incorporate a recently adopted new clean air agreement among multiple regional ports. Previous reports have been dense, impenetrable documents full of technical jargon, but this time, Adams says, “We have a very strong interest in communicating clearly. … From near-port communities we’ve heard a lot of interest in understanding what that report means on a local level.”

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Included in the new multi-port agreement is a commitment to phase out seaport-related emissions by 2050. But can we actually do that? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

“Right now the fuels and the technologies to make a zero-emission ship don’t exist globally on a scale that can be easily adopted,” Adams says. That’s the bad news: to reach the 2050 goal (which coincides with a United Nations estimate for when we must stabilize climate change), cruises will need to come up with some yet-to-be-invented technologies. They’ll also need to develop some logistics to roll those technologies out, not just at major ports, but at the little ones too — for example, those between here and Alaska.

But the good news is that if someone develops that technology, and if there’s the incentive to deploy it, and if it’s implemented here in Seattle — a lot of ifs — then there may be a pathway to facilitating implementation at smaller ports as well. Seattle has an opportunity to serve as a proof-of-concept.

“In Seattle we have the political will and the public interest in taking a leadership role on this issue,” Adams says. But: “It is a monumental change, and some of it relies on the IMO [the International Maritime Organization, which governs certain cruise operations around the world] to make policy changes.”

Environmentalists believe those changes are possible — as long as cruise companies are given the right incentive, whether carrot or stick.

“They used to dump their waste right here at port, and now they don’t,” says Oaks at 350 Seattle. But we can’t care only about our own backyard, she says. “Water and air have no borders.”