Environment & Science

Air emissions drop even as Port of LA has busiest year ever

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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New data from the Port of LA shows that air pollution emitted from ships, trains, trucks and cargo equipment dropped during 2016 -- even though the port had its busiest year ever.

“That is really hard to do,” said an audibly excited Chris Cannon, director of environmental management at the Port of Los Angeles. “This is amazing stuff!”

Every single pollutant tracked by the Port of LA dropped between 2015 and 2016, including the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, smog-forming nitrogen oxide, and diesel particulate matter, which causes cancer. The data was released in the port's latest emission inventory.

Environmentalists applauded the progress, but noted that the Ports of LA and Long Beach are still the largest single source of pollution in a region that still fails to meet federal clean air standards.

“Our ultimate goal isn’t just to make the air cleaner, it’s to make it safe to breathe,” said Adrian Martinez, an attorney with Earthjustice. “The ports continue to produce a lot of pollution.”

The 2016 emissions inventory shows that pollution reductions were distributed unevenly across the Port of LA. Ships and cargo-handling equipment cut their pollution far more than trains and harborcraft. Pollution from trucks actually increased slightly.

Cannon said the gains from ships are largely because of the recent arrival of larger container ships. Mega-ships like the Benjamin Franklin can hold a third more cargo than regular ships, and by cramming more containers onto fewer ships, shippers save on fuel costs – and cut emissions.

In addition, amount of time ships spend idling while in the port is also coming down. In 2016, 65 percent of ships plugged into the grid on shore instead of burning diesel while they waited to be unloaded, up from 54 percent in 2014.

Cargo handling equipment is also becoming more efficient at unloading larger ships, according to Cannon. And terminal operators are upgrading tractors, forklifts, cranes and other equipment to newer, more fuel efficient models.

Meanwhile the truck fleet at the port is aging. Trucks are, on average, six years old. And the majority of cargo at the ports is moved by the oldest trucks, from model years 2008 and 2009, when emissions standards were weaker. 

Most trucks driven at the Port of LA are model year 2010 or older.
Most trucks driven at the Port of LA are model year 2010 or older.
Port of LA

The Port of Los Angeles began its annual emissions inventories in 2005, and since then the port has had more success reducing some pollutants than others.

Diesel particulate emissions have fallen 87 percent since then, largely due to the success of the 2008 Clean Trucks Program, which forced the turnover of more than 16,000 port trucks to newer, less polluting models.  And sulphur oxide emissions are down 98 percent because ships have switched to lower-sulphur fuel.

But cutting nitrogen oxide emissions, a key component of smog, has proved trickier, especially from ships. Emissions have dropped just under 60 percent since 2005.

Significant carbon dioxide emissions reductions have been elusive thus far, although they did drop by 30 percent between 2015 and 2016. That’s because these emissions are directly related to the burning of diesel and other petroleum-based fuels, like natural gas.

To make a big dent in CO2 emissions, the ports are hoping to shift away from internal combustion engines, a strategy outlined in the latest Clean Air Action Plan, which will be finalized this fall. 

That plan calls for replacing all diesel and natural-gas trucks at the ports with zero-emission trucks by 2035. It also creates a Clean Ships Program, which seeks to further reduce idling while ships are being unloaded, and incentivizes companies to bring the cleanest ships to the ports. Cannon hopes these cleaner ships, in particular, will lead to further cuts in NOx emissions.

But some worry that in pursing ever more emissions reductions, the ports are losing sight of cost.

“From 2006 to 2016, we’ve seen a combined 96 percent reduction in diesel particulate emissions from cargo-handling equipment and trucks,” said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, in a statement. “The draft Clean Air Action Plan envisions spending at least $14 billion to achieve the remaining 4 percent - a mind boggling number that neither ports nor their customers can afford to pay.”