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.

This entry was posted in Air Pollution, Environment, Goods Movement, Houston, Panama Canal, Ports, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


    Posted August 31, 2016 at 7:31 AM | Permalink

    Seems to be a nice article with several interesting points. The larger ship would displace 3 to 5 smaller ships so the air quality would only be affected once instead of 3 to 5 times giving it time
    to dissipate. Also the strong change of breeze and wind in the Texas area does not allow the so called pollution to set in the air such as other areas of port operations. Most of the cargo will leave this area in railroad cars so even the truckers pollution will not be seen
    What will increase in warehouse distribution facility’s which may create air pollution as well
    but progress must come as we see the growth in the area
    I am a cargo broker born and raised at the Panama Canal now living in Houston

  2. Adam Armstrong
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 11:15 AM | Permalink

    Great article – and many points here relevant to all East Coast ports. Minor quibble: Shorepower is not “deployed” (i.e. up and running) in New York / New Jersey. The infrastructure for the first shorepower berth in the entire NY/NJ port complex (3rd largest in US), which is at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal (Red Hook), is “operational”, but not a single ship is yet “plugging in”. This has something to do with legal wrangling between the Port Authority and the NYC Economic Development Corporation regarding liability issues. We – in Red Hook, Brooklyn – have been fighting for the implementation of shorepower since 2006 when the Cruise Terminal opened in our neighborhood. Over the last decade there have been many hurdles jumped to get this far. But, frustratingly, the shorepower infrastructure is built, the cruise ships are ready to plug in, yet this pollution eliminating technology – which would take harmful pollutants out our air and out our children’s lungs – is still not deployed. Perhaps you could do a story on this situation? Frustratingly, press coverage of port pollution issues in NY is absent, and we’re constantly struggling to get these matters on the radar and into public discourse. Regardless, when the shorepower berth does finally get deployed, it will be the *first* in the Port of NY/NJ and the first on the entire East Coast! As your article seems to suggest, we also hope that Brooklyn’s shorepower berth will set a precedent for the wider use of this environmentally friendly and life-saving technology throughout our ports – in NY/NJ and up and down the East Coast.

  3. Christina Wolfe Chris Wolfe
    Posted August 31, 2016 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

    Albert – thanks for your comments! You are right that it is possible that one larger ship could displace a few smaller vessels, but one of the concerns I have is that loading/offloading can require much longer dwell time, potentially contributing to congestion issues that causes more ships to anchor nearshore (with auxiliary engines running). We saw recently that when the Port of Long Beach released their annual emission inventory, they noted that the congestion issues in 2015 that caused vessels to have to anchor outside of San Pedro Bay created additional air pollution.

    Air quality in many areas of Texas does continue to challenge public health, unfortunately, despite weather patterns that produce offshore wind. For example, this week, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Forecast website shows moderate ozone levels for Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont-Port Arthur today and in the coming days (note that the detailed discussion also suggests that ozone levels in the Houston area might even be higher than “moderate”).

    You also suggest that cargo transport by rail could be cleaner than with drayage trucks – in some cases, this can be true, but again, the details matter. Switcher locomotives used to load containers onto trains, for example, often have engines that are decades old, with large horsepower, so they can emit a lot of pollution. Our ports work at EDF involves trying to find ways to accelerate the adoption of clean technologies and improved operational strategies around ports and good movement facilities, so that we’re protecting the air we breathe for port workers, as well as nearby communities and the region.

  4. Posted August 31, 2016 at 1:30 PM | Permalink

    Adam – I really appreciate your comment, so thank you. I’ve added clarification on the status of shorepower at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. Like you, I am hopeful the Port Authority will move forward on finalizing shorepower at the terminal in the very near future. By doing so, they would show clear environmental leadership in reducing emissions from ships – an emissions source that has not been widely addressed by port authorities despite being a major source of air pollution at port facilities. Most importantly, though, the Port Authority would certainly signal to the community that it takes the health of its neighbors seriously through real action.