Climate Change

Victoria’s Cruise Ship Conundrum

As it positions itself as one of Canada’s greenest cities, Victoria has simultaneously been boosting an industry condemned around the world for its pollution

Climate Change

Victoria’s Cruise Ship Conundrum

As it positions itself as one of Canada’s greenest cities, Victoria has simultaneously been boosting an industry condemned around the world for its pollution

Climate Change

Victoria’s Cruise Ship Conundrum

As it positions itself as one of Canada’s greenest cities, Victoria has simultaneously been boosting an industry condemned around the world for its pollution

Victoria’s Cruise Ship Conundrum
Illustration by Dash Dixon

It’s a typical summer afternoon in the Salish Sea, and three of the largest moving objects on the Canadian west coast are scheduled to tie up in Victoria.

Already in port is Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas. Tied for ninth-largest cruise ship in the world, it has 11 restaurants, a climbing wall, a skydiving simulator and an “observation capsule” that can be dangled off the vessel’s side with a massive robotic arm. With a capacity of more than 4,000 people, it could carry 4.5 per cent of the city it is visiting. And at three and a half football fields long, it’s about the size of a skyscraper placed on its side.

Tied up at the next pier, the Regatta carries a relatively slight 600 passengers, but it still dwarfs the passing M/V Coho. Later in the day, the 315-metre Celebrity Solstice will spill another 3000 people into the city.

The M/V Coho is utterly dwarfed by the Ovation of the Seas as it heads towards Port Angeles (Credit: Eva Holland).

From May to September, in fact, Victoria will rarely see a Friday and Saturday pass without more than a kilometres’ worth of ships tied up at Ogden Point. Downtown Victoria may not have a go-kart track, a water park or a casino, but all those amenities can frequently be found bobbing just offshore.

Meanwhile, high in the sky, when the light is right, dark plumes of exhaust are visible rising out of the smokestacks of each visiting ship as they idle at their piers. Without exception, Victoria’s visiting vessels are all “hotelling”; an industry term meaning that their engines stay on for the duration of their stays in port.

Idling your car for more than three minutes in Ogden Point’s parking lot can net you a $100 ticket. But only a few meters away, the same rules do not apply to the largest pleasure vessels on the planet. The Ovation of the Seas alone burns through a bathtubs’ worth of diesel roughly every six minutes. Without moving an inch, every hour the ship is in port it spews out the equivalent of eight tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Read more of The Capital’s analysis of Victoria cruise ship emissions

There are roughly 3,900 city-administered parking spots in the City of Victoria. If every one of those spots was filled with an idling Ford Focus, it would still be about 2,000 Focus’ short from equaling the carbon footprint of a hotelling Ovation of the Seas.

All those emissions represent a dilemma for Victoria. On one hand, city hall has positioned itself as a leader among Canadian cities in addressing climate change At the same time, the city is actively welcoming an industry targeted by environmentalists around the world. Even in Canada’s green mecca, going green can be tricky when livelihoods are at stake.

Buses lined up at Ogden Point to ferry cruise passengers into the city (Credit: Eva Holland).

Ogden Point, recently renamed as the Breakwater District, is Canada’s busiest single cruise ship port of call. The city racked up more than 260 ship visits in 2019. A record-breaking 1 million cruise ship passengers and crew visited Victoria this year; double the population of Vancouver Island. Over on the East Coast, Halifax can’t even claim half that number. In 2019, the Nova Scotia city was happy to break records with only 360,000 tourists arriving by cruise ship.  

This wave of cruise visits is all a relatively recent phenomenon for Victoria, which has seen cruise ship arrivals rise 45% since 2010. A lot of this business is thanks to a legal loophole.  Almost all of Victoria’s visiting cruise ships are enroute to Alaska from the U.S. West Coast. Under a piece of U.S. legislation known as the Passenger Vessel Services Act, any  foreign-owned passenger ship operating in the United States cannot transport passengers directly from one U.S. port to another. Since virtually every cruise ship is registered to a non-U.S. country, this means that they’re legally bound to make a Canadian stopover between Seattle and Anchorage. Fail to do so, and cruise lines will be fined US$778.00 per passenger.

Cruise ship passengers are considered among the least profitable kinds of tourists: They don’t buy hotel rooms and they’re often too stuffed from onboard buffets to eat much. Nevertheless, a $130 million sector of the Victoria tourism economy has grown up to accommodate them, from Butchart Gardens to whale-watching vessels to the shops on Government Street. “It’s huge for us,” said one pedicab driver during a momentary pause between fares.

Regatta and the Ovation of the Seas, side by side (Credit: Eva Holland).

Darlene Hollstein is the general manager of the Bay Centre; the double-decker shuttle buses that run between downtown and the cruise ship terminal unload their charges right outside her doors. Of those, she estimates that one third become shoppers at the centre itself. “Without it I think our downtown would definitely struggle,” said Hollstein.

But it all comes at an environmental cost. According to The Capital’s own accounting, in 2019 alone Victoria cruise ships spewed out 11,406 tonnes of carbon dioxide and equivalents.

And that’s just the greenhouse gases: Cruise ship smokestacks also pump out disproportionately high levels of other pollutants such as particulate matter and sulfur compounds,which are a globally recognized cause of lung cancer fatalities. Back in 2010, when Victoria’s cruise ship traffic was roughly half what it is now, an independent air quality study found than when a cruise ship pulled into port, it noticeably raised levels of sulfur dioxide at a monitoring station more than three kilometres away.

Ogden Point in July (Credit: Anne Catherine).

Recent studies out of Europe have been far more alarming. This summer, the Brussels-based environmental think tank Transport & Environment determined that a single cruise operator, Carnival Corporation, was responsible for 10 times more sulfur oxide than every car in Europe.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal, which broke in 2015, revealed that the German carmaker had equipped its vehicles with software designed to defeat emissions tests checking for nitrogen oxide, a contributor to smog and acid rain. As a result of the fraud, a diesel-powered 2011 Volkswagen Jetta was found to emit up to 40 times the U.S. emissions limit of nitrogen oxide; roughly 1.5 grams of it per kilometre driven. When docked in Victoria, the aforementioned Ovation of the Seas emits twice that amount every second.

Victoria’s cruise ship visitors are also bringing an annual tide of garbage and soiled water to the Salish Sea. During cruise season, roughly 150 tonnes per month of solid waste is shipped out of the Breakwater District to Hartland Landfill. In August, a study by the World Wildlife Fund estimated that cruise ships in B.C. waters were responsible for dumping 1.5 billion litres of grey water overboard. The vessels aren’t dumping sewage, but they’re spewing out everything from dishwater to laundry discharge.

A sign near Ogden Point opposing cruise ship dumping (Credit: Eva Holland).

And like any large vessel, cruise ships pollute marine environments with noise and raise the risk of sea life being ground up in a propeller or struck by a hull. It was only two years ago that Grand Princess — a frequent visitor to Victoria — docked in Ketchikan, Alaska to discover a dead humpback whale lodged on its bow. “Increased ship traffic is never good for marine life,” says Bill Halliday, a Victoria-based conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada.

Almost in tandem with the explosive growth in cruise ship traffic, Greater Victoria has increasingly been positioning itself as the capital of Canada’s green movement.

In the 2019 federal election, an incredible 31%  of voters in the four ridings touching Greater Victoria voted Green. North America’s first elected Green caucus sits only two kilometres away from Ogden Point at the B.C. legislature. In February, the Capital Regional District was among the first governments in Canada to declare a “climate emergency,” and Victoria in particular has set a plan to be completely carbon neutral by 2050. The city was briefly home to a total plastic bag ban until the measure was thrown out by the B.C. Court of Appeals. And, since 2017, city crews have been busy ripping up downtown streets to install 32 kilometres of separated bike lanes.

Through all this, Victoria City Hall has simultaneously been an open booster of the cruise ship sector. In 2017, Victoria mayor Lisa Helps joined a delegation travelling to Seatrade Cruise Global, North America’s largest cruise trade show, in a bid to boost local cruise traffic. “The next step, and what I was really there to support, is for Victoria to become a home port. This presents an enormous economic opportunity,” Helps told the Times Colonist at the time.

A three cruise ship day at Ogden Point (Credit: Anne Catherine).

Marg Gardiner, the president of the James Bay Neighbourhood Association, is one of the city’s most vocal critics on the  rise in cruise ship traffic. She moved to James Bay in 2003, just as cruise ship traffic was ticking up, and terminal was ticking up significantly. She remembers the emissions from the ships being so bad that her eyes burned from the sulfur dioxide in the air. Noting that the city just declared a climate emergency, Gardiner said “I find it hypocritical.”

And Gardiner is not alone among the dissenters. “I live near Ogden Point. Someone suggested opening the window a crack at night for a better sleep. I opened the window. Eau de Cruise Ship wafted in. I closed the window,” James Bay resident Jo Manning wrote in a typical anti-cruise ship letter printed in the Times Colonist earlier this month.

Even then, Victoria’s anti-cruise voices aren’t nearly as loud as in other major cruise ship ports. At the opening of the Venice International Film Festival in July, an estimated 400 protesters crashed the red carpet demanding an end to cruise visits at the famed Italian port city.  The next month, another 5,000 anti-cruise ship protesters turned out in the city after a ship, the MSC Opera, accidentally ploughed into a Venetian dock and ferry.

Victorians might be more comfortable with cruise ships for the simple fact that they can’t see them. In Venice, cruise vessels are infamous for literally blocking out the sun when they pass by the city’s historic districts. But with Ogden Point tucked away on the western edge of James Bay, an 170,000-tonne cruise ship can get in and out of Greater Victoria whilst remaining invisible to all but a handful of waterfront properties.

An arriving cruise ships looms over Venice (Credit: Dan Davison).

As cruise ship terminals go, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority actually runs a pretty green operation. As director of cruise development Lindsay Gaunt told The Capital, they actively encourage passengers to walk downtown — and in 2019, 30% of visitors took them up on the suggestion. The terminal’s shuttle buses are double-deckers to cut down on the number of trips needed, and the harbour authority was the first in North America to experiment with electrifying those double-deckers. But it’s only a drop in the bucket of the greenhouse gases coming out of Ogden Point.  According to the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority’s own figures, transportation only accounts for three per cent of the facility’s carbon footprint; the rest comes from all the idling cruise ships.

In recent years the global cruise industry has been working to boost its public image by slashing the number of pollutants coming out of their smokestacks by adopting cleaner fuels or installing onboard scrubbers. It’s why a newer ship like the Norwegian Bliss. a frequent Victoria visitor, emits one fifth of the nitrogen oxide of similar-sized vessels. But no amount of scrubbers can cut the amount of carbon dioxide released by burning marine fuel. While a “green” cruise ship can keep the air breathable, it’s often just as bad for the climate as one belching black smoke.  

The obvious solution to Victoria’s problem is shore power: Creating the infrastructure for ships to “plug in” while they’re in port. On this point, Victoria is actually a bit of an outlier among Pacific Coast cruise ship ports: Seattle, Vancouver, and Juneau, Alaska were all among the world’s first major ports of call to offer plug-in options. The Port of Vancouver estimates that after installing shore power in 2009, they have prevented the emission of 20,757 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Still, shore power is far from a blanket fix. For one, many ships simply decide not to plug in. After Vancouver installed shore power at its Canada Place piers, a 2014 survey found that fewer than one third of vessels made use of the option. Some cruise ships aren’t designed for it, and the ones that are might not be able to match their electrical system to Vancouver’s.

(Credit: Eva Holland)

And even when all the plugs line up, it’s not exactly like flicking a switch. The average cruise ship needs at least 45 minutes to power down after arrival, and the same again before departure. On the five-hour stopovers that are typical for Victoria cruise visits, ships would still need to be burning fuel for at least a third of their visit.

“I’ve been a very strong supporter of the cruise industry and its economic benefits,” Lisa Helps told The Capital in an interview last month. She also described the vibrancy that the sector brings to Victoria’s core. “When there’s a cruise ship in town, you can feel it.”

At the same time, she hinted that things may have gone a bit too far in 2019. “For me what’s happened this summer is, on a few visits on a few lines on a few ships, there have been way too many emissions. They’ve gone way over,” she said. Citizens were sending her pictures of “big clouds of black smoke billowing over the legislature buildings.”

“What is the story that we’re telling about our city, and what is it that residents have to breathe in when they’re down near the cruise ships?” she said.

In recent weeks, a tide does indeed appear to have turned at Victoria City Hall. Earlier this month, city council approved a motion that would limit any additional expansion of cruise ship arrivals until the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority could prove it was taking steps to be greener.

“In a climate emergency, the cruise ship industry must act to demonstrate its commitment to a sustainable environment if it is to capture the social licence needed to operate in our city,” read an accompanying city report.

A twilight photo, taken in 2009, of the Norwegian Pearl docked at Ogden Point (Credit: Kevin Harber).

In response, the harbour authority warned that the measure could scare away cruise traffic altogether. “We need an approach that aligns everyone behind common goals of mitigating and reducing environmental impacts while ensuring that the 800 indirect and direct jobs and the more than $130 million in economic impact are also prioritized and protected,” Greater Victoria Harbour Authority CEO Ian Robertson said in a statement last week.

However, there’s really only so much Victoria can do. If all of the city’s plans for Ogden Point are realized — shore power, electric buses, carbon-neutral terminal buildings — the end result is still going to be flotillas of giant vessels burning through millions of litres of fossil fuel in order to spend an afternoon in the B.C. capital.

As Canadian cities go, Victoria can already claim to be a leader in moving towards carbon neutrality. It’s already powered by an all-renewable electrical grid and there are plans underway to electrify the city’s ferries, its transit, its private cars and even its sea planes. But in cruise ships, Victoria may be staring down the uncomfortable visage of an environmental tradeoff that can’t be had as cheaply.

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