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Port of Long Beach Addresses Congestion’s Environmental Fallout

The economic impact of delays at the country’s largest port complex has been endlessly parsed by industry insiders and financial experts. Now, the Port of Long Beach is addressing the ecological effects of increased activity at the nation’s largest gateway.

Intensified smog has signaled an uptick in the use of diesel engines and vehicles, as well as industrial activity and action at the ports.

The port has been assessing the impact of gateway congestion on the area’s air quality since 2005 when it enacted the Green Port Policy, executive director Mario Cordero said. Since its inception, the program has bolstered technology and policy to reduce emissions, from allowing cargo ships to switch off their diesel engines at berth to launching electric hybrid tugboats in the harbor and encouraging ocean carriers to adopt cleaner fuels, like green ammonia.

The measurements of vessel emissions are calculated using multiple data points, from their time at anchor to their engine models, the type of fuel they consume and additional technologies that they have on board, Cordero said. Over the past 16 years, the port has seen a 90 percent reduction in diesel particulates, a 97 percent decrease in sulfur oxides, 62 percent fewer nitrogen oxides and 10 percent less greenhouse gas emissions—even as cargo production has increased by 21 percent in the same time frame.

While the latest air inventory of the Port of Long Beach from 2020 showed that it had reached its 2023 emissions goals ahead of schedule, managing director of planning and environmental affairs Heather Tomley noted that the uptick in transportation activity at the complex is “a significant source of pollution in the region.”

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“We understand this the number of container ships at anchor off the coast should be zero,” Cordero said, noting that emissions from this period are being assessed through the port’s annual air inventory process, which is reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local regulators. “In the meantime, the best way to reduce the emissions is to reduce the number of ships at anchor,” he added, which the complex is working around the clock to achieve.

Port-related activity represented 5.4 percent of diesel particulate matter, 5.2 percent of nitrogen oxides and 3.2 percent of emissions of sulfur oxides within the South Coast Air Basin—more than 6,000 square miles of territory covering Orange County, much of Los Angeles County, Riverside County, and San Bernardino County.

“We’re not finished and our push to improve air quality,” Tomley said, adding that the port’s Clean Air Action Plan includes zero emissions goals for cargo handling equipment and trucks by 2035. “We’ve been working closely with our terminal operators to move forward with over $150 million in clean technology projects primarily focused on demonstrations of zero-emission equipment.” This includes tractors, stacking cranes, charging stations and a microgrid, along with clean ships, tugs, tractors and trucks. The Clean Truck Program, a progressive ban on older heavy polluting diesel drayage trucks that began in 2008, has now eliminated the last remaining older, more polluting trucks from all port terminals.

The Port of Long Beach completed work on a fully green container terminal in June, Tomley added, where advanced zero-emissions electric vehicles and stacking cranes replaced diesel-powered versions—and this location will serve as a model for port upgrades moving forward.

Cordero said increased port-area emissions is “this is not just a Southern California issue—it’s a global supply chain disruption.”

“Just a few weeks ago, there were 200-plus vessels waiting at anchor at some of the ports of origin that send the containers here to California,” he added.

The Port of Long Beach is on track to process more than 9 million cargo containers by the end of 2021. Dockworkers and terminal operators had already moved more than 8.6 million TEUs by the end of November, surpassing 2020’s record by more than 500,000 units. The port’s overtime efforts and movement toward 24/7 operations have begun to clear a path forward, portending a more manageable 2022, Cordero said.

Last week, 34 container ships waited at anchor to enter the San Pedro Bay complex—less than half the number counted last month. A new queueing process has helped streamline operations, while the threat of a container dwell fee has prompted a 37 percent decline in stagnant cargo since it was announced in late October.

“Clearing the line of ships waiting to enter our port and moving containers off the docks are our top priorities to ensure shelves are stocked and consumers can purchase gifts during the holiday season,” Cordero said. “We are seeing notable improvements toward achieving that goal as we continue to help our supply chain partners catch up and ensure goods are delivered as soon as possible.”

Cordero believes the San Pedro Bay complex “will start seeing an easing of what we have been experiencing” after the holidays and the Chinese Lunar New Year. “We are working 24/7 to address these issues, and progress has been made,” he added. “In my view, hopefully within six months, we’ll have some sense of normalcy.”