Environment & Science

Port proposal to clean up the air could cost up to $14B

Cargo ships are loaded at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.
Cargo ships are loaded at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest port complex in the United States, have an ambitious – and expensive – new plan to combat climate change and clean up the air in Southern California.

But port officials can’t go as far as they have in the past because of new limitations on retiring old trucks, inserted into a bipartisan deal to raise the gas tax in April. 

In a draft released Wednesday, the ports outline a plan to transition trucks, ships, and container-moving equipment towards zero tailpipe emission-technology within the next 20 years. It would cost between $8 and a whopping $14 billion – dwarfing the $2 billion spent on the original Clean Air Action Plan the ports passed in 2006.

What’s the goal of the new plan?

To cut greenhouse gas emissions from the ports to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

How much do the ports contribute to air pollution?

Taken together, the ports are the biggest contributors to air pollution in greater Los Angeles – the region that has the worst smog in the country.

Heavy duty trucks are the biggest polluters, followed by ships and then cargo-handling equipment like forklifts and tractors.

Why are the ports passing this plan now?

In 2006, after a lawsuit by environmentalists left them unable to expand without addressing air pollution, the ports decided to pass their first-ever Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP). It was costly, controversial, but ultimately successful: since 2005, smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions fell by half and diesel soot emissions, a carcinogen, have dropped by 84 percent. At the same time, cancer risk near the ports fell 66 percent – more than elsewhere in the South Coast.

But that progress has slowed.

“The amount of emissions reductions that have occurred over a 10-year period is dramatic, but the amount of emission reductions that have occurred over the last 5 years is not as much,” said Chris Cannon, the director of environmental management at the Port of Los Angeles. “So it’s time now for us to look…for new opportunities to reduce our emissions.”

Plus, the ports are getting pressure from the mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and state regulators, to focus more on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, instead of solely focusing on reducing emissions of local air pollutants.

“We are trying to fall in line with what our mayors are really prioritizing,” Cannon said, “and that’s the reduction of greenhouse gases and the movement towards zero emissions.”

How will the ports get to their goal?

By slowly shifting almost every type of vehicle in the ports – trucks, cranes, forklifts, etc. – over to zero-emission technology, which, for the ports, means not having an internal combustion engine. Let’s take each type of equipment in the ports one at a time:

Port trucks

There are over 16,000 trucks that transport containers in and out of the ports, and they are by far the largest source of pollution.

The CAAP aims to have nearly all of them running on zero-emission engines by 2035. The plan is to slowly phase in new, cleaner trucks in that time. Beginning in 2023, trucks that do not meet the latest state emissions standards for heavy trucks will pay a fee. By 2035, all trucks that are not electric, powered by hydrogen or some other zero-emissions technology will pay that fee.

This plan is significantly different than what the ports had proposed in December, in a previous version of their plan. Initially, the ports proposed doing what they did the last time they wrote a Clean Air Action Plan in 2006: ban the oldest, dirtiest trucks from working the ports.

But due to a provision inserted into SB1, the huge transportation bill that the California legislature passed in April, that kind of truck ban is no longer possible. SB1 prohibits new regulations requiring trucking companies to retrofit or replace their trucks before they’ve reached either 800,000 miles or are 18 years old.

As a result, the ports’ options are limited.


Ships, which burn dirtier fuel than cars or trucks, belch out a ton of pollution while idling in the port to be loaded or unloaded with containers. Indeed, the ports estimate over a third of their diesel soot emissions come from idling ships alone.

As a result, the ports have a goal of getting 100% of ships to stop idling and plug in to shore power while they’re in the harbor.

But that could be tricky, because while it’s technologically feasible, if expensive, for container ships to plug in, that is not the case for over a third of the ships that visit the ports: ships that carry bulk grains, oil tankers, oversized equipment (like wind turbine blades) or car carriers.

In addition to trying to bring down emissions from idling ships, the ports are trying to incentivize shipping companies to use cleaner ships. Beginning in 2025, the dirtiest ships will have to pay higher fees than the cleanest ships visiting the ports.

Cargo moving equipment

Tractors, fork-lifts, cranes, and other machines that pick up containers and move them from ships to trucks are the third largest source of emissions at the ports. The CAAP has a goal of getting all of this equipment to be 100% zero emission by 2030, an ambitious goal that the ports acknowledge may hard to achieve.

Meeting the 2030 goal, according to the draft CAAP, “is complicated by the current lack of commercially available technology and inadequate infrastructure to support widespread charging or fueling.”

In other words, there just isn’t very much zero emission cargo handling equipment currently on the market yet.

Heather Tomley, the director of environmental planning for the Port of Long Beach, said the ports planned to assess the state of electric and zero-emission cargo handling equipment every three years, and make sure they are still on track to hit the 2030 goal.

The plan acknowledges that certain types of cargo moving equipment may not be a good fit for zero emissions technology, or if it does exist, it may be too expensive. However, Cannon said the ports are really trying to move away from internal combustion engines.

“Climate change. That’s the issue,” he said, “we have to move away from combustion based technologies all together to reduce your carbon footprint.”

What's been the reaction?

Air pollution lawyer Adrian Martinez, with the nonprofit Earthjustice, was disappointed by the impact of SB1 on the truck portion of the plan.

“This is the first very public instance where a local jurisdiction has come out and said, SB1 changes the way we can address pollution from trucks,” he said. “The dirty truck amendment is already posing challenges for local entities.”

He also worried that in focusing so much on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution reductions could fall by the wayside, especially because the CAAP does not include targets for reducing pollutants like diesel soot and smog-forming nitrogen oxide.

Still, he was heartened to see the ports make zero emission technology a priority, and to see the plan include a section outlining the logistics industry's contributions to local air pollution.

“When you’re responsible for 40 percent of the smog pollution the the nation’s most smog polluted area," he said, "you gotta do something.”

But Weston LaBar, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association, is worried about that zero-emission goal. He worries zero-emission truck technology won’t be ready, or cost-effective, by 2030. Currently, zero-emission trucks cost half a million dollars, compared to closer to $100,000 for a new diesel.

The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents the marine terminals, was also concerned that zero emission cargo handling equipment won't be ready by 2030. In a statement, president Thomas Jelenic said the ports are overlooking existing, automated electric equipment -- equipment that has been opposed by the powerful union of port workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union because it eliminates jobs.

LaBar says the ports' timeline for shifting to zero emission trucks is too ambitious, and worries that companies could invest in technology before it has been proven. He points to the problems with the introduction of natural gas trucks nearly a decade ago, when companies were encouraged to purchase untested technology that ultimately was inappropriate for port use.

But LaBar said he's happy to see that this time, the ports are piloting up to 100 zero emissions trucks well before they will be in wide use by trucking companies. And he likes that the ports will re-assess the zero emission truck and cargo handling technology every three years, and adjust the CAAP schedule as necessary. 

What’s the timeline?

There’s a public workshop on the plan on August 30. The public can comment on the plan until September 18. The Board of Harbor Commissions of the ports of LA and Long Beach will have a meeting to approve the plan in November.

This post has been updated to clarify Thomas Jelenic's position.