Super-Sized Cruise Ships Pose Larger Than Life Threats to the Environment

How super-sized cruise ships add to the oil crisis.

Recent news that the 2,600 passenger Grand Princess cruise ship will be docked in San Francisco one year from now has unleashed a titanic blast of excitement. Naturally, the thrill of thousands of passengers and crew routinely disembarking at the pier is music to the ears of struggling retailers and restaurateurs. In the meantime, avid cruise fans enticed by dramatic discounts can sail from the Bay and save on airfare for voyages to Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico and the California coast.

“Having the ship sail under the Golden Gate Bridge and berth at the foot of Coit Tower will be spectacular, both for the guests on board and the people of San Francisco,” raves Monique Moyer, Executive Director of the Port of San Francisco.

The Oasis of the Seas

But critics of the supersized cruise ship trend are signaling foggy conditions ahead for accessing the country’s needs to keep its affluenza afloat. Habitual over consumption and the demand for cool aqua parks and live theaters on billion-dollar high rise vessels comes at a huge cost to both the environment and the widening schism between rich and poor. This, amid a growing discontent among the masses worldwide and a contagious occupy mentality. Will occupy the Grand Princess be next?

In terms of greenhouse gas elements, more energy arguably goes into making these ships than what they burn out of a smoke stack – the fabricating of steel, the welding and electronics racks up a stupendous energy and carbon bill – one under-reported by the industry.

Add to that the issue of how ships function, the need for massive diesel fuel and electricity at a time when the end of cheap fossil fuel is a reality – no longer dismissed as the rantings of extremists. An increasing number of thoughtful scientists and economists are writing about dwindling peak oil, skyrocketing prices for a gallon of gas and our dependency on an oil-based lifestyle.

“As steel gets harder to get and more people become aware of what we are doing to get fuel that remains, they will want to prioritize the use of oil out of necessity and use it for moving people around and getting food from where it grows to where it needs to be,” observes Bay Area conservationist, Win Lamar.

He figures resentment will grow if oil is used frivolously on non personal transportation for luxury excursions. “Ships are still for the one-percent elite and as long as resources and wealth go to the fewest, the anger will climax. Look at Syria, Italy, Greece and Spain. People are taking up arms in the street, normal looking people who look like you and me are smashing property in downtown Madrid and it’s only a matter of time before it starts here.”

The award-winning ‘Central Park’ aboard the Oasis

If the prediction is accurate, it will reach tall heights before it falls as witnessed in the fawning over the unparalleled grandeur of world’s largest cruise ship, the Grand Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas christened in 2009 and lovingly labeled a “floating nation” by the company.

How big is it? As the Daily Telegraph put it, “it’s so big that $75 million has been spent on tripling the size of the Port Everglades terminal at Fort Lauderdale where it sails, and new docks have been built around the Caribbean to berth it for Caribbean cruises.”

Costing $1.4 billion to build and able to carry 6,296 passengers at a time, the juggernaut epitomes excess with features such as its award -winning Boardwalk and Central Park. Carved out in the center of the ship, the public area with pathways mimics a city promenade with open air, lush plant life with canopy trees and seasonal gardens.

Stats show the mother of all ships has sold for roughly 41% more on the average than the rest of the company’s fleet with the least expensive rooms selling for 61% or more. And because of discounts introduced the past few years, cruising is on the rise, 13.4 million people shipping out in 2009 up from 12.6 in 2007, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Sure, the discounts cut into profits but the cruise lines are looking at a recovery on the horizon whether feasible or not.

Aqua Park on the Oasis luxury liner

All this means more fuel down the drain and more pollution emptied into the sea, despite stricter federal regulations and efforts on the parts of ships to go greener and clean up their acts. Ocean pollution watch group Oceania reports ships are more harmful to the environment than airplanes, generating up to 25,000 gallons of sewage from toilets and 143,000 gallons of sewage from sinks, galleys and showers each day. Scariest of all, the waste is often dumped without treatment, sending bacteria, pathogens and heavy metals into our coastal environments.

 Plastic in the sea from cruise ships poses harm to marine life

Some of the improvements being made are measurable and lauded as pioneering technologies while other steps amount to greenwashing by what is considered the fastest growing segment of tourism.

Crystal’s Go Green shore excursion, introduced last year has been criticized as a Band-Aid to cover a gaping wound. Passengers paying some $5,000 for the cruise can fork over another $95 for a day of doing good deeds in Malta such as planting trees on the island’s only national park, donating food to a charity and learning about growing practices at an organic farm.

According to the New York  Times, Princess Cruises is trying cold ironing, plugging ships into electrical power at ports in San Francisco, Juneau, Alaska and Seattle. Norwegian introduced a recycling program in 2007 converting used cooking oil to bio diesel for farming equipment in Florida. Disney sponsors volunteer coastal cleanups to remove debris from shorelines and Holland America donates reusable linens, beds and dishes to charities. Others such as Carnival have an environmental officer aboard to monitor compliance with LED lighting, solar panels and other alternative energy strategies.

A cruise ship cold ironing at port in San Francisco

While travelers who must cruise are urged to do their due diligence in investigating large and small ships that are lowering their carbon energy bills, some conservationists argue the best message you can send is to find another way to explore.

“It is interesting times,” observes Lamar. “First we went as fast as possible galloping on horses or having animals pull a wagon and then trains sped things up and then oil was discovered and we had autos, airplanes and these giant ships, and now it’s all winding down with the end of cheap, easy oil. I think that’s a good thing for the planet.”

Image: Royal Caribbean

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.