ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 4 (UPI) -- U.S. cruise ships have started to switch to cleaner burning liquefied natural gas, starting with a new vessel due at Florida's Port Canaveral in November.
The use of LNG in cruise ships will slash harmful pollution from the ships and help the industry meet new global environmental standards and lower fuel costs, according to Florida port authorities and the Cruise Line International Association.
LNG also will mean a clearer view for passengers by eliminating visible smoke from ship smokestacks, said Brian Salerno, senior vice president for maritime policy at the Cruise Lines International Association.
As to whether air quality will improve on board, cruise companies dispute there ever was a problem.
"I think we'll begin to see, throughout the maritime world, greater use of LNG in all kinds of ships," Salerno said. "Over the next five years or so, you'll see many new cruise ships launched for this."
While Port Canaveral in east-central Florida will be the first cruise line port to handle the new fuel, PortMiami, Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and the Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach are gearing up for it.
About 70 percent of the U.S. cruise industry is based in Florida.
The first cruise ship in the United States to use LNG fuel will be the Carnival Mardi Gras, which is under construction in Finland and expected to start service at Port Canaveral in November. Carnival's AIDA Cruises has had two LNG ships operating in Europe.
Salerno said the new ships that are under construction with LNG capacity cost $1 billion or more each.
The move to LNG was driven by demands from environmental groups and from the European Union to reduce greenhouse gases and other emissions, said Tom Strang, Carnival Corp.'s senior vice president of maritime affairs.
Cruise ships historically used a dense version of diesel that releases pollutants such as sulfur and particulate matter.
LNG has a lower energy cost per ton when compared to marine fuel oil by nearly 24 percent, according to a recent report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service. But the report said installing an LNG-fueled engine can add about $5 million to the cost of a new ship.
The report concluded that the pollution reduction of using LNG is real, but also noted that natural gas production has less measurable impacts on greenhouse gas emissions -- such as the release of methane in fracking -- that may offset some benefits of using LNG as a fuel.
Strang said the cost of building new ships that use LNG is only slightly higher than building for traditional fuel oil. He said the big difference is in the space needed for onboard fuel tanks and the thick insulation required. Training crews to handle a super-cooled fuel is also a significant cost, he said.
LNG is natural gas -- like the fuel used in a common kitchen stove -- that has been cryogenically frozen to subzero temperatures, making it liquid. Like any fuel, there's a risk of fire and explosion, but such incidents are very rare in the history of LNG fuel storage.
"This is an industry with an impeccable safety record. I would say it is as safe as marine fuel oil, and the people that are going to be using it are highly trained and will be closely regulated," said Barry Compagnoni, Port Canaveral's senior director of public safety and security.
U.S.-based cruise ship operators have 26 new LNG cruise ships on order for delivery by 2026, according to Cruise Ship Order Book, a trade publication. The companies are Carnival, Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International.
Carnival, the world's largest cruise company, operates more than 100 ships under 10 brands, including Princess Cruises, Holland America and Cunard Line.
Although the cruise industry has explored retrofitting older ships to handle LNG, Carnival's Strang said that is not likely because of the expense and need to take ships out of service for long periods.
"As a company, Carnival has been on this journey for some time now," Strang said. "Besides the benefits of carbon reduction, we saw an opportunity to move to a fuel that was cleaner and more efficient."
Pressure to reduce emissions prompted the International Maritime Organization in 2016 to order a tight cap on sulfur for marine fuels by last month.
Cruise companies have outfitted existing ships to meet that cap by using scrubbers in exhaust systems. But those systems store the sulfur in water, which eventually is discharged into the ocean and is another form of pollution.
The Mardi Gras is coming to Port Canaveral, rather than PortMiami where new ships often head, because the Central Florida facility prepared for LNG early, port CEO John Murray said.
"When I got to Port Canaveral five years ago, I understood the benefit of LNG from a low-sulfur standpoint, and I said if we're going to have LNG cruise ships, we've got to be right out front," Murray said. "And now we're there."
Murray had experience with LNG in his previous role as the head of the U.S. subsidiary for global cargo shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd.
For now, however, Port Canaveral will not fuel cruise ships from land-based LNG tanks, but will contract with Royal Dutch Shell to bring the fuel on barges from Elba Island, Ga. No plans exist to build LNG tanks for land-based storage at Port Canaveral.
But Murray said LNG storage probably is in the port's future, and it has set an area aside in case Shell or another energy company wants to build a facility.
Carnival is working with ports globally to develop a network of LNG fueling stations. In the meantime, LNG cruise ships will have dual fuel systems so marine fuel oil can be used if the vessel arrives at a port that can't provide the LNG.
Carnival was among cruise companies that came under fire for alleged pollution in January 2019. That's when a researcher from Johns Hopkins University published a report on air quality tests he conducted on several ships.
The report said air quality on cruise ships was worse than a bad smog day in China. Carnival called the findings "ridiculous" and "inaccurate" and said its air quality met or exceeded all requirements.