COMMENTARY: The Port of Long Beach Hoists the Green Flag

An Environmental Turnover in One of the Dirtiest Industries. First in a Two-Part Series.

Shipping boats usually idle for the three or more days it takes to unload, spewing emissions.© Photos: Port of Long Beach

Do you ever wonder how the TV you watch or computer you work on ended up at the store where you bought them? Recently, I visited Long Beach, California to check out and write about their port, which is the second busiest in the country (just behind their neighboring port, that of Los Angeles) and is a major hub for U.S.-Asian trade. Combined, the ports make up the San Pedro Bay Port Complex, which is the fifth busiest port in the world, taking in 40% of the United States" imports, half of which come from China. The Port of Long Beach (POLB) alone transports over $100 billion ($140 billion in 2007) and 85 million metric tons worth of cargo each year. It imports electronics, plastics, furniture, food, clothing, machinery and many other items.

Why should you care? Well, for one thing, you may be purchasing a lot of goods from these ports, especially if you are in the Western region of this country. And while you may worry about your car and its environmental impact, you’re less likely to think about how imported cars come over on ships. For example, Toyota has a terminal at the POLB, where it ships over Priuses. Ironically, Toyota has not yet signed a Green Lease, an important aspect of the Port’s new environmental policies.


The shipping industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Out of all human-related emissions, ships produce 2.7% of carbon dioxide, 15% of nitrogen oxide and 8% of sulfur dioxide. According to recent articles in the L.A. Times, some ships emit more exhaust than 12,000 cars each day. In Southern California, the San Pedro Bay Ports are the single largest source of air pollution. This includes the heavy- and light-duty trucks, locomotives, and other vehicles operating in relation to shipping and cargo transport. Regarding vehicle emissions for the POLB, ships make up 50%; trucks make up 25%; and small boats, cargo-handling equipment, and trains make up the rest.

A study published by the Green Car Congress reports that CO2 emissions from shipping will probably soon exceed those of aviation. Ships, unlike airplanes, affect coasts, which is why public concern initially motivated the Port of Long Beach to develop some of their ecological initiatives. "The community has the power to change and halt things," says Richard Steinke, the Port’s Executive Director. Bob Kanter, the Manager of Environmental Affairs and Planning for the Port, cites a 2000 study by the South Coast Air Quality Management District whose data "painted a pretty grim picture and highlighted the negative contribution of the goods movement." That study "galvanized the public" and "forced [the Port] to recognize" its responsibility to the community. Since then they’ve increased their communications with the city, including setting up real-time monitoring stations.


One particular point of contention between the Port and the city is the rapidly increasing amount of trade, although it is partly fueled by the region’s consumer demand. Trade has quadrupled in the past 10-15 years, and is expected to double or even triple in the next 15 years. Creating new facilities and attempting to "grow green" (the buzz phrase around the port) is a "huge technological challenge," says Art Wong, the Port’s Public Information Officer, since "gains could be wiped out if cargo grows."

The Port of Long Beach transports over 85 million metric tons (and over 0 billion) worth of cargo each year.

Bob Foster, the Mayor of Long Beach, says, "I can’t in good conscience talk to people about expanding the port unless it gets cleaner." He believes they’re moving in the right direction. The Port has said that it hopes to lower emissions by 50% even while cargo doubles, which Foster calls "a great start." But he keeps thinking, "What would you tell families around the Port with young children with asthma [and other diseases]? Is it worth it? [We"re] not willing to tolerate growth at any price anymore." In a recent GreenXchange Global Marketplace Conference, Foster said, "My first job as mayor of Long Beach is to protect the health and safety of my citizens. In my city, families that live along the trade corridors have two to three times the statewide average of asthma cases. That’s not an accident
we are not going to allow kids in Long Beach to contract asthma so someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set. Those days are over."

Steinke explains that, after a "culture change" at the Port in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he feels a similar responsibility. "Now we need to be good environmental stewards when we recognize that our growth has started to impact the city. We’re only temporary stewards of this resource. I hope we have left the legacy of good, responsible, and environmentally sensitive development." Now they have a "triple bottom line," which is, according to a POLB mug on his desk: "Economic Vitality, Environmental Health, Community Integrity." Another motto he keeps is, "we have an obligation to clean before we grow."


The Port’s tenants are following suit. According to Anthony Otto, President of Long Beach Container Terminal, Inc. (LBCTI), "everyone now absolutely understands that if we want to be able to sustain this industry, we have to be able to do it in an environmentally sensitive manner." Otto also sees that "some technologies make a lot of sense in that they are good for the environment and the economy," such as innovations that lead to reductions in fuel. Certainly Otto, like other terminal operators who live in or near Long Beach and either rent their terminals to shipping lines or work for a specific shipping company, has a good reason to care about the Port’s environmental efforts. "I"m sitting in this building, I’m raising my kids not far from here," he says.

But the shipping companies have no obligation to follow the Port’s environmental lead. Since ships pass through international waters, they are subject to little regulation. For example, ports don’t have direct control over the shipping lines that come into their port. However, since private companies lease terminals from landlord ports like Long Beach, the port can control the terms of their leases and require tenants to abide by certain rules when renewing or beginning leases.

These new leases are referred to as "Green Leases," which include far stricter environmental regulations, including shore-side electricity and cleaner equipment. Ships emit no pollutants by plugging into shore-side electricity (also known as cold ironing) while at berth, where they would normally idle for the three or more days it takes to unload. The California Air Resources Board has noted that if ships who make three or more trips to the Port per year plugged in while at berth, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions would be reduced by 70% each day. Unfortunately, there is "not one universal system to plug in every ship," says Wong. "We’re trying to set international standards; it’s hard if we’re the only port doing this."

Wong explains that the POLB can "negotiate leases and set terms," but cannot pass laws, so the Green Leases ("environmental covenants") take advantage of their landlord status. These Green Leases have only been used twice so far, for

a shipping line whose lease expired and another whose lease was renegotiated. More leases are set to expire in the next few years, and the port intends to combine two old facilities to create a larger, greener terminal, known as the Middle Harbor Project (a site "designed to cut emissions in half while doubling trade volume," according to the Port’s media materials), which will also require a Green Lease.


The Port can also ask for voluntary participation in certain programs. This has worked very well with its Green Flag program, which asks vessel operators to slow down to 12 knots within 20 miles of the port. This reduces fuel use and pollution, and has apparently reduced air pollution by 600 tons per year since 2006. By reducing dockage fees and awarding green flags to shippers who comply, the Port saw a jump to 95% compliance. Mainly, shipping lines wanted to show the public what they were doing for the environment. Without those incentives, they may not have made an effort. Wong admits that, "These companies don’t care much about the Long Beach community."

CO2 emissions from shipping will probably soon exceed those of aviation.

Steinke thinks that shippers, "left to their own devices, wouldn’t be doing this [environmental protection] without us, but they understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and want to grow green with us." Thanks to the Port, says Foster, shippers and terminal operators are beginning to "understand that they have to not only do business here, but also do good here." Lots of them are demonstrating this by donating the money they make through the Green Flag Program’s reduced fees back to Long Beach.

On July 1, the Port started the new voluntary Vessel Main Engine Fuel Incentive Program, encouraging shippers to use low-sulfur fuel within 40 miles of the San Pedro Bay. The Port will be "subsidizing the higher fuel costs for companies" for the first year, says Wong. This "will cost us $10 million," he says, and "yield incredible benefits." According to Wong, it costs $14,000 to lower a ton of emissions from a truck, but only $3,000 to lower a ton of emissions from a ship; so reducing a ship’s emissions is four times as effective. The Port is also "expecting state regulations and funds to kick in within the next few years," says Wong.

Yes, the POLB is ahead of the state of California (notably, a very progressive state), "doing things above and beyond compliance with existing laws," says Kanter. "Because we started doing this, California got interested," confirms Wong, who notes that, unlike the Port, which generates revenue by leasing properties to private companies, the "state doesn’t have a big funding mechanism." Foster thinks that the state is "a great backstop" (i.e., reactive rather than proactive) that has been "pretty supportive" of the Port of Long Beach. Of course, CA’s environmental regulations are even stricter than national regulations. "The federal government has largely abdicated its responsibility," says Foster, who believes that each community must work to solve problems independently.


He takes a similar stance regarding the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the only authority over international shipping. Along with Harbor Commissioners and Steinke, Foster has met with the IMO to encourage them to adopt stricter standards. However, they have not signed on to the IMO because they are so far ahead of its loose regulations that doing so would bring them backwards. He explains, "Other ports don’t have the wherewithal, but that doesn’t mean that we should be limited. We’re well beyond where they [the IMO] want to go. You’re not gonna impose the same standard right now. You should push that a little bit but can’t expect [other ports worldwide with fewer resources] to meet that. I want to be able to protect our flexibility in dealing with our problem as we see fit."

Indeed, that attitude has helped the POLB pass a lot of its new requirements. While it works on many projects in conjunction with the Port of Los Angeles (POLA), "we have such a compressed hierarchy here. We make such quick decisions here and other ports don’t do that," says Kanter. They have a smaller staff and a "more hands-off philosophy" than the POLA, which meets only twice a month and needs the city council to approve its projects. The POLB’s approach contributed to its adoption of the Green Port Policy, which integrates environmental protection into all of the Port’s activities, and which will be covered in the 2nd part of my commentary.

CONTACT: Port of Long Beach

MARA SCHECHTER is a former E editorial intern and student at Georgetown University.