“Greening” America’s Ports | The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach

by Brendan Colgan

A competitive global economy forces ports to compete with one another for trade and fosters a cut-throat mentality: ‘expand or be forgotten’, ‘cut costs otherwise your competitor will’. As a result, green initiatives are often put on the back-burner because they are viewed as adding costs to a system that inherently seeks to cut costs. And so the capitalist love story goes. However, in recent years more and more ports are adopting cleaner, “greener” practices in the advent of innovative technologies and tighter regulations. In the US, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are leading the way in terms of green port initiatives. In this article, we will explore how and why ports should embrace “green”.

Shipping and Pollution

Shipping ports worldwide often harbor more than just ships – as economic and  industrial centers they are also major sources of environmental pollution, particularly in the form of air pollution. Large quantities of low-quality bunker fuel  are burned as container ships sit idling at the dock, waiting to be unloaded and loaded. Ships aren’t the only polluters (nor are they the main polluters), terminal operations at the ports and transport chains require vast amounts of diesel to fuel the semi-trailer trucks and locomotives used to distribute the newly arrived goods .

In recent years many ports are making the necessary expansions required to handle larger, “post-Panamax” ships (so callled because they will be too large to fit through the Panama canal until expansion is complete) with larger cargo loads. Larger ships (see  means more cargo can be shipped cheaper and profit margins are higher. However, such rapid, large-scale expansions often exacerbate environmental issues already existing in the area.

SoCals Ports


The ports of Los Angeles and neighboring Long Beach are the top 2 busiest container ports in the United States and are the major gateway for US-Asian trade. 45% of all containerized goods in the United States enter through these ports. Combined, the ports are the fifth busiest seaport complex in the world – behind Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

Los Angeles has been known for having poor air quality – the infamous “LA smog”. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, extensive studies of air quality were conducted in Los Angeles County to see how the smog was effecting people’s health. What the studies were finding was an alarmingly high correlation between people’s exposure/proximity to industrial processes and a higher risk of developing asthma, chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases. Moreover, it was found that among the most significant polluters were the two local ports, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. It was estimated that these ports alone were contributing more smog forming pollution than all 6 million cars in the Los Angeles region combined.

As a result, a five-year Clean Air Action Plan was created in 2006 with the cooperation and participation of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, California Air Resources Board and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with investments by the two ports for air quality programs.

Intelligent Solutions:

The total costs for all the environmental changes planned for the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles is estimated at 2 billions dollars, at least.

1) Shore-to-Ship-Power . Similar to how airplanes ‘plug-in’ while they are parked at the terminal, the ports LA and Long Beach are attempting to install power outlets for ships to plug into while dockside.  British Petroleum (BP), has initiated a voluntary project to install shore-side electrical power. This project is projected to reduce emissions by at least 22 tons of NOx and 0.8 tons of diesel PM per year.

2) San Pedro Bay Clean Air Action Plan
This plan was originally drafted in 2006 and  aims to “significantly reducing the health risks posed by air pollution from port-related ships, trains, trucks, terminal equipment and harbor craft over the next five years.” And it seems to be working. According to a recent report analzying data from 2005-2010, the Port of Long Beach has made an estimated 70% cut in diesel pollution and all other key air pollutants from port-related sources have been reduced.

3)Main Engine Low-Sulfur Fuel Incentive Program — The Port has allotted $10 million for a one-year incentive program to encourage vessel operators to use low sulfur (0.2 percent sulfur or less) Marine Gas Oil (MGO) or Marine Diesel Oil (MDO) in their main engines during their approach or departure, out to 20 or 40 nautical miles from Point Fermin. Read more here.

4) Emissions Inventory — The ports are making tracking their emission levels and making the data public. A recent data and analysis of its 2008 air emissions inventory is available here.

5) Marine Vessels –The Port initiated the Green Flag Incentive Program and dedicated as much as $2.2 million a year toward financial incentives to improve compliance. The Port’s goal is to bring 100 percent of all visiting vessels in compliance with the program

6)Modernizing Cargo-Handling Equipment -the port and other private entities are investing in modernizing all of the cargo handling equipment to reduce emissions. For example, 1,000 new, more efficient diesel and liquefied natural gas trucks which represent about 11 percent of all new trucks at the San Pedro Bay Port.

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