The Port of Houston cannot be better without better environmental goals


Spending a day in the port of Houston is a modern marvel of logistics. Dozens of container ships stocked with food, furniture, clothing and cars from all over the world sail along the Houston Ship Channel and dock at one of the port’s two container terminals.

A team of dock workers greets the ships, which use huge, diesel-powered cranes to remove and stack the 20 and 40-foot containers like colorful Legos. At the other end of the terminal, thousands of trucks snake their way to the gate, past the security checkpoint, over to the containers, where crane operators carefully lower them onto the chassis of the truck. On a good day, the trucks can be driven in and out in 40 minutes.

The hyper-efficiency of port operations, while impressive, comes with significant environmental costs: the ocean-going vessels, handling equipment, and trucks are three of the largest sources of emissions in the Port of Houston.

The port handles around 3.5 million containers a year, but officials plan to double that number over the next decade. The 375 hectare Bayport container terminal, for example, will eventually grow to 550 hectares, with three new quays and nine more cranes. Such extensions can only worsen the air quality.

While the pollution of the Port of Houston is hardly unique to a large port – cargo ships emitting an average of 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year – competing ports are developing coherent strategies to achieve cleaner, healthier practices. In 2017, Los Angeles and Long Beach officials promised to convert the country’s busiest port complex into a largely zero-emission operation by 2035. The Northwest Seaport Alliance, which includes the ports of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, made a pledge in April, by 2050. The New York and New Jersey Ports Authority last month set a new interim target of 50 percent greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to eliminate or offset.

Of course, the bold decarbonization goals of these ports are only as strong as the new policies that underlie them. The Port of Seattle, for example, has developed a comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions inventory that enables it to set targets for reducing its highest emissions. In March 2020, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach voted to charge a small fee on shipping containers to help truckers buy cleaner vehicles.

While the Port of Houston has proven that it is prepared for the challenges of climate change, its leadership has so far failed to make ambitious statements on reducing emissions and overall pollution, preferring an ad hoc approach that flies under the radar.

When asked why the port is not keeping pace with its competitors in achieving the zero emissions target, Rich Byrnes, chief infrastructure officer for the Port of Houston, told the editorial staff that the port “will not promise what we can.” do not deliver.”

“I think the tradition at port was not to brag about the things you are going to do; talk about what you did, ”he said. “So let’s not go out and make these grandiose goals.”

One thing is terrific. Serious goals are different. Any successful CEO, athlete, or political leader will tell you that you can achieve greater heights by raising expectations, not lowering them.

It is true that the port has made progress in cleaning up its practices. Officials say they spend $ 10 million annually on “sustainability initiatives”. In 2020, the port signed a 10-year renewable power contract that will put all public facilities in a solar farm in West Texas. The company has also implemented a CO2 reduction program, starting to replace the tall mast lighting with LEDs and purchasing new hybrid cranes to replace the older, diesel-powered machines. Recently, under pressure from community and environmental groups, it agreed to proceed with cleaner equipment for Project 11, its signature $ 1 billion effort to dredge and expand the Houston Ship Channel.

However, by refusing to set measurable targets and benchmarks for environmental sustainability, the port is shirking responsibility for reducing its pollution. The sustainability action plan includes 27 potential projects that advance the port’s environmental goals, from investing in a fleet of electric trucks to improving green spaces in port communities. However, these initiatives are all unfunded ideas that rely heavily on external funding and private sector partnerships to be successful. The $ 10 million commitment to environmental sustainability requires further clarification – what is that money being used for to significantly reduce pollution? Even the renewable energies program – which aims to reduce 250,000 tons of CO2 emissions over 10 years – is relatively meaningless if it is not tied to an inventory of the port’s emissions. It is not enough for port officials to announce that they have reduced their carbon footprint by 55 percent since 2016. Show us the work.

Cleaning up ports around the world is an important part of solving the existential crisis of climate change, but it is also critical to improving the health of the surrounding neighborhoods, where residents breathe different forms of pollution every day. Greenhouse gases in and of themselves are not like conventional air pollution – for example, they do not smother the horizon or make it difficult to breathe. But many of the activities that cause CO2 emissions also pump other pollutants into the air.

The same heavy, diesel-powered trucks that haul containers and bulk goods between the port and various rail facilities and distribution centers emit diesel emissions that pour into neighboring communities from Pleasantville to Fifth Ward and Baytown. Families who live along the Houston Ship Channel – where real estate and rentals are much cheaper – live with daily attacks on their health. The cancer risk for residents of Manchester and the neighboring community of Harrisburg, where Valero operates a refinery, is 22 percent higher than the rest of Houston. A study by the University of Texas School of Public Health found that children who live within 2 miles of the ship’s canal were 56 percent more likely to develop some type of leukemia than children who live 10 miles away.

Port officials will have another chance to please these troubled communities when they present their long-awaited clean air strategic plan in the coming weeks. We call on Commissioners and Chairman Ric Campo to commit to the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 90 percent by 2050, with clear plans to fund the initiatives needed to meet that goal.

The port management should also do much more financially to create an emission-free supply chain. The Environmental Defense Fund has asked the port to spend 5 percent of its gross revenue – about $ 20 million a year – on cleaner equipment, from tugs to trucks to trains. That’s a more than reasonable down payment for better air quality for all Houstonians.

Without these significant commitments, Port Houston will be left out from its competitors and the city and its people will suffer.

About Christine Geisler

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