Selected category: Air Pollution

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.

Also posted in Environment, Goods Movement, Houston, Panama Canal, Ports, Transportation| Read 4 Responses

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.

Read More »

Also posted in Environmental Justice, Particulate Matter, Ports| Comments are closed

Environmental Injustices in the Air We Breathe

air-pollution-smoke-rising-from-plant-towerThis post originally appeared in La Voz de Esperanza.

For years now, San Antonio residents have endured unhealthy levels of ozone in the air we breathe. Yet, the city of San Antonio has narrowly avoided violating the US Environmental Protection Agency’s national ozone standards, designed to protect human health. But San Antonio will soon have to make changes to its approach to air quality.

In October of last year, the EPA, responding to the findings of recent health studies, lowered the maximum allowable ozone level. On April 8 of this year, San Antonio exceeded that threshold, which means our region is not meeting EPA’s ozone air quality standards.

This matters because ground-level ozone can affect our health and often has disproportionate impacts on racial and ethnic minorities. The good news is that there are lots of ways to reduce ozone. Read More »

Also posted in Environmental Justice, Natural gas, Ozone, Uncategorized| Comments are closed

Asthma Awareness Month – Show How You Care About the Air

ChildAsthma

May, which is well into ozone season in many regions in Texas, is also Asthma Awareness Month — an opportunity for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and health partners to educate Americans on asthma health risks and prevention strategies.

Asthma is a condition in which inflamed airways make it difficult for a person to breathe, and smog may be a trigger for asthma attacks. According to the American Lung Association, almost 26 million Americans have asthma, including more than seven million children.

Asthma and other health issues such as lung disease are directly affected by air quality. Asthma Awareness Month is kicked off by Air Quality Awareness Week, a week that health officials use to spread awareness of the effects of air quality on human health. The week included celebrating champions of asthma education and prevention by announcing the winners of EPA’s National Leadership Awards in Asthma Management on May 3rd. These recipients have developed national models for effective asthma care. Read More »

Also posted in Environmental Protection Agency, Ozone| Read 1 Response

San Antonio Leadership Puts People over Politics by Supporting Clean Power Plan

By: John Hall, Texas state director, clean energy, and Colin Leyden, senior manager, state regulatory & legislative affairs – natural gas

san antonio riverwalk pixabayWhen it comes to clean air and clean energy, Texas cities – and their encompassing counties – know what’s good for them.

San Antonio’s Bexar County Commissioners, for example, recently approved a resolution supporting the nation’s first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants, the Clean Power Plan.

Bexar County includes the City of San Antonio and adjoining areas. By endorsing the plan, the broader San Antonio community joins Texas’ largest cities Houston and Dallas, whose mayors are also supporting the sensible, cost-effective clean air measure. (In fact, Houston and Dallas filed an amicus brief together with a large coalition of cities to support the Clean Power Plan in court).

All of this comes in the face of staunch opposition from Texas state leaders, who have used taxpayers’ money to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over these safeguards. Meanwhile, Bexar County Judge Nelson W. Wolff and commissioners passed the resolution unanimously, meaning members from both sides of the aisle put politics aside and voted for healthier air for our communities and families. Read More »

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, Ozone, San Antonio, Utilities| Comments are closed

Promoting Freight Supply Chain Sustainability: Environmental Defense Fund Selected as a 2016 SmartWay Affiliate Honoree

rp_clean-truck-11.23.15-300x2181.jpg

EPA's SmartWay Transport Partnership has been a powerful tool for encouraging operators to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions.

We all know that the Environmental Protection Agency works to make the freight industry more sustainable, but they can’t do it all on their own- partnerships and outreach to industry are key in achieving these goals. So who else is involved in the push for freight transportation efficiency?

Initiated in 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay Transport Partnership has been one of the agency’s most powerful tools for encouraging freight transportation operators to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. Since 2004, SmartWay Partners have saved a reported $24.9 billion in fuel costs and eliminated 72.8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, 1.5 million tons of NOx emissions, and 59,000 tons of PM emissions.  Read More »

Also posted in Energy Efficiency, Environment, SmartWay| Tagged , | Comments are closed
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