Panama Canal Expansion – Panacea or Problem for Ports in Texas?

Panama Canal -- Photo by Antonio Zugaldia, from Flikr

Panama Canal — Photo by Antonio Zugaldia, from Flikr

Everything is bigger in Texas, they say. Now, with the expansion of the Panama Canal this summer, we may start to see bigger ships in some Texas ports, too. These bigger ships would represent more business for Texas, but there could be a downside. Since these ships have huge engines that emit dangerous pollutants, we could see – and breathe – dirtier air. That’s why it’s so important for us to carefully manage these changes.

In late June, the first post-Panamax ship traveled through the newly-expanded Panama Canal, signaling a new era for mega-containerships and other super-sized vessels that can carry up to three times as much cargo as before. (“Panamax” was the term for the Panama Canal Authority’s size limit for ships traveling through the canal, The new mega-ships are sometimes called “Neopanamax” vessels.)

The expansion of the Panama Canal means that the near monopoly held by west coast ports, like the Ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and others, on container trade from Asia may be ending. Instead of offloading cargo in southern California and relying on trains and trucks to transport goods to inland regions in the U.S., shippers will now be able to offload containers from Asia at U.S. ports on the Gulf or East Coast — taking advantage of potentially lower shipping costs and improved economies of scale.

Potential Diversion of Cargo from the West Coast to Texas

No post-Panamax vessel has called at a Texas port via the Panama Canal — yet.

But Texas ports stand to benefit if shippers moving goods from Asia decide to divert cargo from the U.S. West Coast through the newly-expanded canal.

Besides being geographically closer to Asia than East Coast ports (such as Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk, and New York),Texas is home to four major metropolitan areas experiencing rapid growth Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin. These fast-growing cities help to support strong demand for consumer goods, many of which come from Asia.

Texas is also a powerhouse in the oil and gas industry. Houston is the petrochemical capital of the country, as well as home to several major active oil and natural gas fields. Exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) could also attract larger vessels — of the nearly 70 Neopanamax vessels transiting the expanded Panama Canal since June, two were LNG carriers, and 24 were liquefied petroleum gas carriers.

Why Big Ships Could Mean Bigger Problems for Texas’ Air Quality

Texas is home to 18 ports along the Gulf Coast. Seven Texas ports are ranked in the top 50 nationally for total tonnage, according to the US Department of Transportation:

  • Port of Houston
  • Port of Beaumont
  • Port of Corpus Christi
  • Port of Texas City
  • Port Arthur
  • Port Freeport
  • Port of Matagorda/Point Comfort.

Most of these ports face air quality challenges, and are located in regions that have not been able to meet health-based air pollution standards for ground-level ozone (also known as smog).

Newer mega-containerships have been designed to carry two to three times as many containers as those built to travel through the Panama Canal before its expansion (the “Panamax” vessels). Since engine power does not have to scale up at the same rate as cargo capacity, they use engines that are only ten percent larger.

Because the size of an engine has a direct impact on emissions, the expectation is that, all things being equal, these ships would increase emissions by ten percent over conventional “Panamax” ships – but would carry up to 300 percent more cargo (so fewer ships would be needed). Newer ships are also required to meet International Maritime Organization requirements that limit emissions from ship exhaust, so newer ships typically have cleaner engines.

If these newer ships are able to carry more cargo and have newer engines that are cleaner, then why should we be worried about their impact on air quality in Texas?

It’s because ship emissions are the largest source of pollution at ports, and emissions from increased ship traffic at Texas ports could negatively impact the air we breathe.

Emissions from ships come from the large propulsion engines used for transiting and maneuvering, as well as auxiliary engines for hoteling while the ship is at dock. Emission inventories commonly show more than half of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions at ports coming from ocean-going vessels, with the remaining emissions shared among cargo-handling equipment, drayage trucks, locomotives, and harbor vessels.

This means that if either more ships come to call or ships stay longer, we could see deterioration in air quality from more emissions of harmful pollutants in Texas. Either of the following scenarios could happen:

  1. Bigger ships take more time to load and unload, which can increase emissions of ships hoteling, as well as cargo-handling equipment and other sources, if landside operations are not able to handle the increased cargo volume. This can also contribute to congestion issues.
  2. Bigger ships may offload cargo to smaller ships (also called “transshipment”) at Texas ports, meaning we could see a higher volume of ships because of the additional cargo being transported. Moreover, these smaller ships may not be newer, cleaner-emitting ships.

More Solutions Available to Address Ship Emissions

The good news is that today, ports in Texas have more options to address ship emissions than they did in the past.

In addition to shorepower systems, which allow ships to “plug-in” to the electrical grid instead of running engines while at dock, there are now two emissions capture technologies that show some promise for capturing emissions of pollutants that are harmful to human health. These emission capture technologies operate by containing many of the emissions that directly affect human health (like nitrogen oxides and particulates) at the smokestack of a vessel while it continues to run its engines. This is a compromise, however, since fuel continues to be burned to run the vessel’s engines, so climate-polluting greenhouse gas pollution continues to be emitted.

Ten years ago there were few if any options for addressing ship emissions. Today, shorepower installations have been deployed (or planned) at ports and marine terminals around the country (including throughout California, Seattle/Tacoma, Halifax, and the planned installation at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal at the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey), and new demonstrations of emissions capture technologies are being conducted.

Texas stands to benefit economically from the Panama Canal expansion, but these benefits should not happen at the cost of breathing clean air. EDF has called on lawmakers, as well as Texas ports, to make clean air projects a priority before, and we’ll continue to work to move these efforts forward.

In future blogs, we will share more about these promising technologies and how investments in these technologies could help reduce ship emissions at and around ports in Texas.

Posted in Air Pollution, Environment, Goods Movement, Houston, Panama Canal, Ports, Transportation| Read 4 Responses

2 Ways El Paso Just Upped Texas’ Solar Game

SolarPanelArrayThe city of El Paso has many nicknames, but “The Sun City” is probably the most well-known. After two important energy updates this summer, West Texas’ largest city has even more reason to call itself that.

First, El Paso Electric, the public utility that serves nearly half a million customers, reached a major milestone: It is now officially 100 percent coal-free and has pledged to increase its solar investment. Second, the utility agreed to eliminate its proposal that would have resulted in different electricity prices for customers with solar panels at their homes. Such a pricing structure would have placed an unnecessary burden on El Pasoans with solar.

Sunny El Paso has incredible potential for solar power, and both of these developments are positive signs for the city’s clean energy future. Let’s take a closer look at each.

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New Study: Solar, Energy Efficiency Can Help the Texas National Guard Save Money and Water

HeroBannerMain24 croppedThis year has seen historic flooding across the South. In addition to the devastating rains that recently hit Louisiana, severe floods pummeled Texas earlier this year. In both cases, the states’ National Guards were first responders, rescuing families, delivering meals and supplies to survivors, and providing local agencies with high-water trucks, boats, and helicopters.

As the frequency of extreme weather events like these increases, it is imperative that the National Guard can continue devoting resources to critical, first-responder services. But in Texas, those services could be threatened by the state’s dwindling water supplies.

A new study from CNA Analysis & Solutions, funded by Environmental Defense Fund and in collaboration with the Texas Army National Guard (TXARNG), shows many Texas defense facilities are in water-stressed counties. Over time, this could result not only in higher water costs, but also power production constraints, since it requires a lot of water to produce and move electricity from traditional energy sources like coal and natural gas. Both of these challenges pose a direct threat to the budget and operating capabilities of the TXARNG. Fortunately, the analysis also indicates these same areas have great potential for solar energy, which requires little to no water to meet power needs on-site.

By tapping into that potential and pursuing bolder energy efficiency initiatives, TXARNG could ease pressure on the electric grid and reduce utility bills, all while safeguarding residents and precious water supplies. Read More »

Posted in Energy Efficiency, Energy-Water Nexus, Military, Renewable Energy| Comments are closed

Walking the Walk: Companies Lead the Call for New Clean Truck Standards

trucks flickrAs readers of this blog will know, Texas often prides itself on being a great place to do business. As you will see below, business can also have an important voice in keeping Texas (and the U.S.) a great place to live.

This post, originally published on the EDF+Business blog, is from our colleague Tom Murray, VP, Corporate Partnerships Program who notes that leading companies recognize the business value of clean trucks, for business, for health, and for the planet. We wanted to share this post with Texas Clean Air Matters because of its relevance to the Lone Star State. Our state stands to benefit significantly from the new rules, especially since truck freight in Texas is forecast to grow 120 percent by 2040.  

— The EDF Texas Clean Air Matters Team

A number of America’s most iconic brands helped pave the way for the new Clean Truck standards announced August 16th by the U.S. EPA and DOT. Nearly 400 companies, large and small, publicly urged strong, final fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for heavy trucks.

Through their action, these companies have reaffirmed a basic truth of business today: to be a “leader”, companies must align their sustainability goals and strategies with their external engagement on policy. Read More »

Posted in Clean Car Standards, Goods Movement, Transportation| Tagged | Comments are closed

Going for the Green: Rio Olympics Show Link between Environment, Economy, Health

OlympicHandOlympic Games are historically about gold, silver, and bronze – not green. Even the “greenest” Olympics, held in London in 2012, used nearly 400 temporary generators, which release harmful pollution, including carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides among many others. Nevertheless, when Brazil won its bid in 2009 to host the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the country pledged to host the "Green Games for a Blue Planet,” a festival with sustainability at its core.

Brazil, nearly as large as the U.S. and holding 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, currently uses renewable energy to make about 85 percent of its electricity (compare that to the U.S., where only 13 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources). With renewable energy success like that, who better to host the “Green Games?”

Yet, despite Brazil’s ambitious goals, years of planning, and an advantage in existing renewable energy resources, Brazil is falling short of its goal for a cleaner, greener Olympics. This is because serious social, political, environmental, and health challenges tangent to the Olympics have constrained the nation’s ability to realize the sustainability goals Brazil thought achievable in 2009.

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Asthma in Texas

ChildAsthma(This post was written by Grace Tee Lewis, EDF’s Kravis Postdoctoral Science Fellow)

August in Texas is not for the weak of heart or lung.

As temperatures rise, so do levels of air pollutants such as ground-level ozone – better known as smog. For those with asthma, being outside on high ozone days can lead to asthma attacks. Children, older adults and people who work outside are the most susceptible.

In Texas, asthma affects roughly 1 in 13 adults and 1 in 11 children. In 2014, this represented 1.4 million Texans aged 18 years or older and 617,000 children according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

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Posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Justice, Particulate Matter, Ports| Comments are closed
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