Major East Coast container ports are likely to come under the type of environmental pressure West Coast ports have faced for years when the Panama Canal completes its new locks.
Although the larger ships of up to 13,000 20-foot-equivalent units that will be able to transit the new locks are much more energy-efficient and produce fewer carbon emissions than the smaller Panamax ships that use the existing locks, the net environmental impact will be an overall increase of 4 percent in global carbon emissions and so-called criteria pollutants, according to a new study.
The study, performed by a team of six academic, environmental and maritime analysts and published in the December issue of the Future Science Group’s quarterly Carbon Management journal, assumes the new locks will produce a 10 percent shift in container cargo from the West to the East Coast or 1.2 million TEUs a year. That, in turn, will generate more emissions because of the longer all-water sea route from Asia.
Although it estimates the overall increase in East Coast emissions of carbon dioxide from the diversion will be a “negligible” 4 percent, it figures the increase in emissions of criteria pollutants will be significant, including nitrogen oxide, up 18 percent; sulfur oxide, also up 18 percent; and particulate matter, up 17 percent.
The impact of these increased emissions will be particularly noticeable in the regions around the five ports that will gain the most from the cargo diversions: Baltimore, Charleston, New York-New Jersey, Norfolk and Savannah.
These ports will have to be wary of what they wish for. “While they are preparing to handle the additional container traffic and cargo coming in, they also need to be thinking about the environmental impact associated with that increase in traffic,” said Elena Craft, a health scientist and toxicologist at the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the authors of the study. “They need to find ways to offset the increase, coupled with the strengthening of some of the standards for criteria air pollutants.”
Standards for particulate matter emissions were strengthened in December, and the ozone standard, which is up for review this year, is expected to be strengthened. “Ports in the Southeast, which haven’t had to deal with air quality issues, are going to find themselves in a new world of having to mitigate the environmental impact of this,” Craft said.
The most likely impact of increased cargo at the five ports is more congestion along the I-95 corridor up and down the East Coast. That will add fuel to the long-dreamed-of hope for development of more short-sea shipping among the East Coast ports, which could be one of the most effective ways of mitigating the environmental impact of the increased cargo.
The study looks at two models of the so-called I-95 Marine Highway, one connecting New York and Norfolk, and the other connecting Norfolk and Charleston. Although its estimates of possible emissions savings are preliminary, the study concludes the canal expansion would ultimately reduce CO2 emissions and energy usage, but it would produce higher emissions of sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.
The findings include the reduction in overall emissions resulting from lower intermodal and truck volumes moving to the Midwest and East Coast from West Coast ports, and the increase in the volumes moving to the interior from East Coast ports.
But Craft cautioned the findings are preliminary. “It’s all a bit fungible, because some of the East Coast ports won’t be able to handle the post-Panamax ships because the depth of the channel does not allow that,” she said. Savannah and Charleston, for example, likely would never get to the depth of New York or Norfolk because the cost of dredging that deep is prohibitive, Craft noted. As a result, post-Panamax ships that call at Charleston and Savannah after the new locks open won’t be fully loaded. “They might use the larger ships but not fill them to capacity, which negates the purpose of the larger ship,” she said.
In addition to Craft, the authors of the study include James J. Corbett, a professor at the University of Delaware; Eric Deans director of shipping and policy research at the Maritime Authority of Jamaica; Jordan Silberman of the Maritime Authority of Jamaica and principal of GIS Consulting; Erica Morehouse, also of GIS Consulting; and Marcelo Norsworthy, who works on air pollution issues related to seaports and with the Environmental Defense Fund.