Selected category: Ports

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 Air Pollution, Environment, Goods Movement, Houston, Panama Canal, 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 Air Pollution, Environmental Justice, Particulate Matter| Comments are closed

Researchers Highlight Air Quality Ideas for Ports

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ed/US_Navy_100302-N-2147L-003_Sailors_remove_a_shore_power_cable_aboard_SS_New_York_%28LPD_21%29.jpg

Shore power is a promising alternative allows ships to plug into the local electricity grid and reduce harmful emissions.

For ports that commit to reduce emissions and improve air quality, figuring out the best way forward can be challenging – the sheer volume of information on the subject may be overwhelming if you don’t know where to get started.

Fortunately, research facilitated by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) can help ports and terminals get up to speed on the latest breakthroughs in emissions technologies and clean air strategies.

Two weeks ago, TRB held its Annual Meeting in Washington, DC and welcomed more than 13,000 of the world’s top transportation researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders. The conference highlighted some of the top trends in transportation, and shared leading research on topics including air quality modeling, emissions control technologies, and environmental policy reviews. Texas ports can learn much from the air quality ideas presented at TRB – whether from the peer-reviewed research or insights from experienced panelists.

Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Energy Efficiency, Environment, Uncategorized| Tagged , , | Comments are closed

“Sustainable Ports” in Texas – an Oxymoron?

By: Christina Wolfe, manager, air quality, port and freight facilities, and Kate Zerrenner, manager, energy-water initiatives

800px-Houston_Ship_Channel_Barbours_Cut wikipedia

An oxymoron is “a combination of words that have opposite or very different meanings,” according to Merriam-Webster (a commonly given example is “jumbo shrimp”). Ports – with an immense amount of traffic and heavy cargo coming and going – have recently been equated with power plants in terms of air pollution. Some might suggest that the concept of a ‘sustainable port’ is impossible.

It’s not, actually.

Earlier this year, the first “zero-emissions terminal in the world” opened at a port in the Netherlands using equipment that releases no pollutants from a tailpipe and on-site wind energy for power demands. And closer to home, large ports in the U.S. have taken promising steps, like the Port of Seattle’s aggressive energy efficiency initiatives.

Texas ports have some work to do, both to keep up with strong economic growth (like the record year the Port of Houston is projecting) and because Texas already leads the country in climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions. But the good news is there is a way they could very quickly up their game: the use of renewable energy. And in the midst of historic climate talks in Paris, there is no better time for Texas ports to consider commonsense investments that safeguard both public health and the global climate.

Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Energy-Water Nexus, Renewable Energy, Transportation| Comments are closed

The Greener Side of Freight Transportation

Port Freeport Operations Manager, Jesse Hibbetts, provides a tour of Berth 7 at the Velasco Terminal.

Port Freeport Operations Manager, Jesse Hibbetts, provides a tour of Berth 7 at the Velasco Terminal.

This post first appeared on the EDF Climate Corps Blog.

This summer I had the opportunity to work with Port Freeport, a deep-water seaport in Freeport, Texas, on developing a new supply chain strategy from scratch. Currently, empty containers are trucked from Houston to Freeport for loading. Then, the filled containers are driven back to Houston completing the round-trip cycle. This long-haul covers 162.2 miles. Port Freeport’s new approach, which would reduce truck trips, emissions and costs, would issue a permit for overweight vehicles to move goods from industry to Port property. Once on site, these containers would be loaded onto a barge and shuttled to Houston. This process is more commonly referred to as short sea shipping or container-on-barge. Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environment, Uncategorized| Tagged , | Comments are closed

Fostering Growth while Reducing Port Emissions: Important Steps on a Clean Air Journey

tugs-353422_640 pixabayGrowth at the Port of Houston Authority (PHA) is staggering – an estimated 8,500 ships will visit the Houston Ship Channel this year and cargo traffic at the port has increased by over 20 percent compared to last year. That’s after a record-breaking year in 2014. Many worry about how much pollution the additional traffic may bring to the area. After all, diesel emissions from transportation activity at the port are already a contributor to localized air pollution.

But at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we know that business growth and improved quality of life issues can go hand in hand. This summer, Richardson Companies (Richardson) – a stevedoring, warehousing, trucking, and barge company that is one of the largest tenants at the Port of Houston – participated in EDF’s Climate Corps Fellowship Program. This program matches specially trained graduate students with leading organizations to strategize scalable solutions for energy management. On average, over $1 million in energy savings are identified for each host organization. With the help of their graduate fellow, Keegan Hartman, Richardson learned how new transport service, emerging technology, and operational changes would enable them to accommodate increased demand for transport services as well as reduce emissions.

Through the strategies discussed below, Hartman calculated that Richardson could reduce supply chain carbon dioxide emissions by over 1,000 metric tons annually and also save approximately $1 million internally on annual fuel use – producing both environmental benefits for the community and economic rewards for the company. Read More »

Also posted in Goods Movement, Houston| Tagged | Comments are closed
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