Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy is seeking to end the voter-approved Ocean Ranger program, bringing an end to an extra layer of pollution monitoring the state has been conducting on cruise ships visiting Alaska’s waters since 2006.
The change is packaged within the governor’s far-reaching “matching expenditures to revenues” budget, but it has nothing to do with closing the deficit. That’s because the program, which is funded with a $4 per berth fee (raising about $4.1 million in the current year), more than pays for itself.
The program itself only costs the state about $3.4 million and the excess funds go to other “marine adjacent activities,” as the Department of Environmental Conservation’s budget officer Jeff Rogers told the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.
“It’s not a program that’s required by the constitution of Alaska or the federal constitution,” he said. “It largely duplicates duties we have authority to do elsewhere.”
When asked about the impact on the state budget, Rogers conceded that eliminating the program would do nothing to help patch the state’s deficit. He said, instead, that the additional scrutiny on the cruise ship industry isn’t fair.
“It’s the only industrial permitting program we operate where the state mandates an on-site observer for compliance. We have thousands of discharge permitees throughout the state—both to air and water—and none of those permitees other than cruise ships have a requirement for a constant 24/7 on-site observer. This change puts the cruise ship industry on the same platform as any other,” he said. “I can’t tell you that that there’s not good work done by the Ocean Ranger program—I believe there probably is, I believe they probably see things and get them corrected—it’s simply a different standard we apply to any other permitee.”
Alaska’s Ocean Rangers are environmental engineers have free access to cruise ships and monitored about two-thirds of all eligible cruises in 2018, where they logged 189 alleged environmental violations, according to a report by CoastAlaska.
While Rogers and the state have made the case that the pollution protections will be covered by other parts of Alaska’s law, the Ocean Rangers themselves are not so certain. Ed White, head of DEC’s cruise ship monitoring program, spoke with CoastAlaska about concerns with eliminating the program.
“The Ocean Rangers have been a critical part in our permitting process,” White said, explaining that without the onsite observers the state ability to monitor cruise ships would be limited. “We only have the authority to go on board ships when a sample is being taken while they’re discharging.”
Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, threw ice water on the governor’s hopes for a swift repeal of the program amid the ongoing talk about major overhauls to state spending.
“So, if we eliminate this program does it help with our deficit?” Stedman asked.
“It does not,” Rogers replied.
Stedman said, then, that repealing the program won’t be a priority for the Legislature.
“We’re going to have to pick our fights to deal with budgetary issues that deal with our deficit. We’re going to be prioritizing what we do to deal with our budget deficit. And if we get bogged down in these things that don’t fix the problem, then it’s just going to get worse,” he said. “You can submit your statutory changes and you guys will make your proposals and we’ll dispose, and if we have time in the Legislature we can do all kinds of things, but the focus of this committee is going to be to deal with the budget deficit head on. … In my opinion, speaking for myself, issues like this may be well-intended but they’re not timely to the burn rate of cash on the table.”
Gershon Cohen, who authored the 2006 ballot initiative, also told CoastAlaska that he was puzzled by the governor’s move, noting that the rangers have continued to find violations every year.
“Why the state would want to get rid of a program that only protects our waters from international companies that have a long track record of repeat felonies is beyond me,” Cohen said.
It’s also not a cut that the cruise ship industry has asked for, Cruise Lines International Association Alaska’s John Binkley told CoastAlaska in a statement.
“All we have seen is the budget proposal to eliminate funding for the program, which was not at our request,” Binkley said. “We have not seen any additional details.”
Binkley was widely rumored to challenge Dunleavy in the Republican primary for governor, but the challenge never materialized.