Green ports will require greenbacks

Green ports will require greenbacks

Container ports are a national treasure. They efficiently handle low-cost imports that make Americans the most pampered consumers on earth. Ports generate thousands of jobs, including those of longshoremen living comfortably on $100,000-a-year salaries. Just about everything the ports do is commendable, with one exception - they generate pollution.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is not a household name in the maritime industry, but port directors will soon be familiar with the organization. It is completing a study, due for release by the end of the year, that will grade the top 10 U.S. container ports on how they address pollution caused by vessels, container yard equipment, locomotives and harbor truckers.

The NRDC is also establishing a "green port" model, detailing the best practices that container ports could incorporate into their operations. For example, if terminals in Long Beach operate yard equipment that reduces emissions by 50 percent through the use of emulsified diesel fuel and diesel oxidation catalysts, the NRDC may expect terminals in New York-New Jersey, Savannah, Houston and elsewhere to use similar equipment.

Although the NRDC is not a regulatory agency, it wields a lot of power. Any port director who does not take the council seriously should talk to the largest supermarket chains in California about a settlement the NRDC spearheaded in 2000. The agreement, which was signed by the California attorney general, in effect states that distribution centers operated by supermarket chains are stationary sources of pollution because the dozens of trucks that call there each day create harmful diesel emissions. Does this sound at all like a marine terminal?

The NRDC set up emissions-monitoring devices in the neighborhoods around the distribution centers, and won a settlement requiring grocers to use alternative-fuel vehicles, build alternative-fuel refueling stations and reduce truck-idling time.

At seaports, the NRDC is moving aggressively in another area that is sure to cause angst for terminals and shipping lines. The NRDC earlier this year reached a settlement with the Port of Los Angeles that requires vessels calling at a new terminal for China Shipping Container Line to operate from shoreside electrical power while at berth. The terminal has yet to open because China Shipping, like other container lines, does not have ships that are equipped to operate "cold iron," with engines shut off.

Because ships and ports aren't yet designed for shoreside power, the NRDC is renegotiating the agreement and will probably come up with a plan to phase in the requirement. The NRDC has already approached Los Angeles and Long Beach about imposing shoreside-power requirements for terminals that are under construction, being enlarged or changing tenants.

The changes won't be cheap. The ports estimate that it costs more than $5 million to equip a terminal with shoreside electrical power, and $200,000 to $500,000 to equip a vessel with the ability to operate from shoreside power. China Shipping is equipping at least one vessel for cold-iron operation.

Port and shipping executives who say the cold-iron requirement is fanciful probably said the same thing last summer about legislation that fines terminals in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland $250 for every truck that is forced to idle for more than 30 minutes. The legislation took effect on July 1, and all terminals at the ports have complied with the requirements.

Ocean vessels are especially susceptible to environmental restrictions. The California South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency that enforces the truck-idling bill, says a single container ship in port for three days emits four tons of nitrogen oxides, or the same amount of pollution as two mid-sized oil refineries.

Carol Coy, the air-quality district's deputy executive officer of engineering and compliance, recently demonstrated to a meeting in Long Beach how much pollution ports cause. She held up a map of the Los Angeles basin that showed concentrations of pollution at the port complex and along the freeways that serve the port. She then held up a map that showed what would happen if diesel emissions from all sources were significantly reduced. The ports and transportation arteries were suddenly in compliance with environmental regulations.

If politicians across the country get their hands on this type of information, the maritime industry will be hard-pressed to counter it. That's why ports should look seriously at phasing in shoreside electrical power and low-emission container-handling equipment. It'll be costly, but it may be necessary.

Bill Mongelluzzo is West Coast editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at (562) 432-0311, or via e-mail at