Cold reality

Cold reality

When ports build or expand container terminals, they must consider water depth, crane design, container storage and myriad other issues. Now they may face an additional requirement - installation of electrical outlets so ships can shut off their engines and use shoreside power while at berth.

Like many other trends, this one started in California. An environmental organization, the National Resources Defense Council, sued the Port of Los Angeles this year over its environmental impact report for a new terminal for China Shipping Container Line. The settlement required all vessels to operate from "cold iron," relying entirely on shoreside electricity.

The council says that if other ports and the vessels that call at them don't install "cold-ironing" capability, it will try to force them to do so. The environmental organization is on a mission to reduce diesel emissions from ocean vessels, marine terminals, railroads and harbor trucking companies. Its strategy is to examine design plans for new marine terminals or facilities designated for expansion, and to challenge environmental impact reports that do not identify and reduce sources of pollution.

Needless to say, the council's tactics aren't popular among ports and shipping lines. Some shipping executives complain that the private environmental group has become a de facto regulatory agency, and most ships and ports aren't designed to operate docked vessels from shoreside power.

Although the Port of Los Angeles built electrical capacity into the China Shipping terminal, the carrier has been unable to use it because none of its ships are equipped to do so. Realizing that, the environmental group has opened new negotiations with the port. A compromise agreement is expected to allow some vessels to continue to operate their engines while in port.

That does not mean the environmental group believes operating from shoreside power is not feasible in Los Angeles and other ports. "It is our goal, through settlements, to create green expansion of terminals. Electrical power for ships will happen," said Gail Ruderman Feuer, the council's senior attorney in Santa Monica, Calif.

Environmental groups say ships contribute to air pollution. According to California's South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regulatory agency in the Los Angeles basin, a container ship at berth for three days emits four tons of nitrogen oxides, or the same amount of pollution as two mid-size oil refineries. About 15 container vessels call at the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on a typical day.

When other sources of diesel emissions are added from container-handling equipment, locomotives and the thousands of old trucks that call in the harbor each day, ports are easy targets for environmental groups. If the National Resources Defense Council succeeds in requiring other ports to use shoreside power, ship operators will face difficult decisions - and additional costs.

Robert Kanter, the Long Beach port's director of planning, said it costs more than $5 million to build shoreside electrical power capability into a terminal, and about $200,000 to $500,000 to equip a vessel to operate with shoreside power.

The port is completing a study that indicates some vessels call at the port so infrequently that it would not be feasible to retrofit them to operate with shoreside electricity. Other vessels, though, make repeated calls at the port over a period of years, and could be candidates for retrofitting, Kanter said. "Cost is important, but it's not the only consideration," he said.

West Coast ports are already instituting measures to reduce emissions. By year-end, all terminals in Long Beach will have equipped their container-handling equipment with diesel oxidation catalysts, which will reduce emissions by 25 percent. If the equipment also uses emulsified diesel fuel, emissions are reduced by 50 percent, Kanter said.

Similar measures are likely to be in other ports' futures. Ruderman Feuer said the National Resources Defense Council is analyzing the environmental programs of the top 10 container ports and will issue a grade to each by the end of the year.

If the council believes a port has failed to identify a source of emissions or that it hasn't outlined acceptable steps to reduce pollution, the council may challenge a port's environmental impact report for a new or expanded terminal. If that doesn't work, the next step may be a lawsuit similar to the one in Los Angeles.