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Is Greening the Port of Long Beach Beside the Point?
Patrick Rollens, 16 Oct 07
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Long Beach smells like diesel. The city, California's fifth-largest, is home to the massive Port of Long Beach -- a sprawling industrial complex that handles the bulk of the nation's pan-Asian import traffic. According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about $96 billion in goods passed through the port in 2003. Given our increased trade with China over the last few years, that amount is no doubt far greater today.

I've written occasionally about the global supply chain. Most of my sources for these stories spoke reverently about the combined ports of LA and Long Beach as the mecca of logistics: an entire intermodal city built around the transportation of containerized goods. (Of course, Long Beach isn't just about global trade. Sure, you can see the port's cranes from downtown, and a brown haze stretches from horizon to horizon, but the city itself considers the port merely one facet of a typical diversified southern California economy.)

Like so many other industrial operations, the port is upping the ante on its environmental awareness campaign, trying (belatedly) to push back against some of the negative opinions surrounding its' role in economic globalization. The combined ports emit about 2,000 tons of diesel exhaust every year, on top of 35,000 tons of nitrogen oxide; the California Air Resources Board estimates the state's port pollution is responsible for 2,400 premature deaths annually.

The capstone of the port's environmental initiative is the Green Port Fest, an event intended to open up the port to the surrounding community and answer questions about its environmental impact around southern California. But the port is seeking to combine this goodwill effort with a comprehensive initiative to clean up and green its operations -- a good idea on the face of it, but with possible economic consequences that may make it a tough sell with pro-business elements in the Califonia State Legislature. As described by Daniel Wentraubwrote in The Sacramento Bee,

The plan calls for the elimination of older, "dirty" diesel trucks from the ports within five years. It envisions the electrification of cargo and cruise ship terminals so that vessels can shut down their diesel engines while at berth. All cargo-handling equipment will have to be replaced or modified to meet the strictest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for new equipment.

But the plan depends on two controversial measures. One is a rule that would essentially end the port's dependence on thousands of owner-operated trucks, many of them driven by recent immigrants who cannot afford to upgrade their equipment to meet the new standards. They would be replaced by bigger trucking companies using employee-drivers, at a potential increase of 80 percent in the cost of truck transportation, according to an economic study commissioned by the ports.

The other measure is a proposed, $30 fee on each loaded container moving through the ports. This would produce about $300 million a year in new revenue that the ports would use to upgrade their infrastructure and help private operators acquire cleaner equipment.

The idea behind the fee is to force the people who benefit from trade to pay a portion of the environmental costs that their business generates.

There's another problem here, in addition to the potential for thousands of independent truckers to lose their work. These measures -- while perhaps transformational in terms of cutting pollution -- are ultimately intended to help grow capacity and streamline transit times at the port, which would in turn uphold current notions about the global supply chain paradigm. But change is necessary, especially in massive industries like global logistics. We need to find new ways of moving goods around the world. New energy sources, new routes and an increased emphasis on fair, local production.

In short: we don't need a green port, we need a whole new way of thinking about ports and their role in the delivery of goods.

Image credit: Patrick Rollens

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Pollution the shippers to burn clean fuel. Pollution will be cut in half overnight - likely at far lower cost than other proposed measures.
Health car cost savings will be about 10 billion per year. Current proposals ignore shippers which contribute 60% of the problem and promise only modest reductions that will not happen for many many years...further they will probably be tied up in court for the forseeable future.

Perhaps we would not need to pay the shippers the full cost of converting but could negotiate a lower amount. But even if it were necessary to pay the full cost, it would likely be a bargain. European Union studies have shown that reducing ship emissions is far more cost effective than other pollution reduction approaches. One wonders therefore why California continues to ignore ships contributions and work only on less effective more costly solutions that will take years to implement.

Posted by: William McLaughlin on 17 Oct 07

If we radically localize our food systems, what happens to food security? I live in Georgia, which is going through a major drought right now. If we relied on locally or regionally grown food for most of our calories, we'd be in big trouble!

Local fruits and veggies are great, but maybe staples like grains, potatoes and legumes should be shipped from various locations so that the infrastructure is already in place if the harvest fails somewhere.

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 18 Oct 07

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. You’re both right and completely wrong in your finally assessment, however. In fact, we *badly* need a greener port, even while we look into increased local production, shifts in federal subsidy, and other long-term strategies (also badly needed).

Global trade’s not going anywhere, and the number of jobs and tax revenue generated by the ports will not be easily replaced (in 2005, the combined ports generated $28 billion in state & local taxes, and 3.3 million jobs). And the ports do need to expand, because the whole operation, including jobs and revenue, is expected to triple in less than thirty years (unless, of course, oil crashes before then, which it very well might).

So while I don’t disagree that we need to rethink our region’s dependence on foreign goods, cheap oil, the whole bit, I still think we need a greener port now, and those 2,400 (more by some counts) prematurely dead people all agree! It may not be the whole story, but it’s certainly not a misguided effort.

Posted by: justus on 18 Oct 07



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