LA Port Congestion and Pollution: A Ticking Time Bomb?

in Decarbonization, News, Trends by

Los Angeles and Long Beach ports have long been the primary source of pollution on the US West Coast, which also happens to be the smoggiest region in the country. Since June of this year, the accumulation of diesel-powered container ships and a large number of cargo-moving trucks in the ports has exacerbated the situation. Residents living near these ports face the highest risk of cancer from the air pollution in that region, which is primarily caused by smoke-belching ships anchored at these ports. California has set a 2023 deadline for reducing smog and improving air quality, but the situation on the ground has deteriorated in recent years. Especially, with the ongoing congestion at the LA port.

While efficient ports are critical for the economic development of their surrounding areas, the associated ship traffic, cargo handling in the ports, and hinterland distribution can all hurt the environment as well as the economy.

Photo by Jens Rademacher on Unsplash

Port congestion and Pollution:

When a vessel arrives at a port and is unable to berth, it must wait at the anchorage until a berth becomes available. This is a problem that only gets worse over time and Southern California ports have been facing congestion issues like never before. A huge crowd of container ships has been constrained to queue outside Los Angeles and Long Beach, causing the latest supply chain disruption in the United States.

The ships are stranded outside two of the busiest ports of the country, which together handle 40% of all containerized cargo entering the US.

The number of ships awaiting entry into the largest US gateway for trade with Asia reached a record high, increasing delays for businesses attempting to replenish inventories during one of the busiest times of the year for seaborne freight.

On September 12, Port of Los Angeles Director Gene Seroka warned that a “significant volume” of goods was “coming our way throughout this year and into 2022.”

Timeline of the number of vessels in the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and related anchoring areas

Consequently, on September 18, a record 73 ships were trapped outside the port – nearly double the number as that of the previous month.

The current congestion — with both ports setting records regularly — exemplifies cargo surge since the pandemic. The backlog has increased pollution and poses a threat of supply shortages ahead of the holiday shopping season.

The following chart shows a year-over-year comparison of the AS-based vessel density and the emission density calculated by FleetMon in the ports of LA and Long Beach in 2020. In 2021, the vessel density and emission density in the anchoring area increases and a second anchoring area is occupied by the waiting container ships.

Year-over-Year analysis showing the occupancy of the anchoring areas off the coast of Loas Angeles and Long Beach and related CO2 emissions caused by the anchoring ships

Environmental Aspects Of The LA Port Congestion

Transportation by sea is a significant contributor to climate change and air pollution. Carbon emissions from ships hurt both human health as well as the environment. These emissions-related effects have become noticeable in territorial waters and port regions during the LA congestion.

The smoke from those ships anchored outside the port can be seen rising from the piers in Long Beach, contributing to the region’s historically poor air quality in the port surroundings. 

The port authorities have been working to improve the air quality in areas adjacent to the port complex for years now, thanks to the joint Clean Air Action Plan of 2006.

However, the ongoing congestion has increased pollution, requiring the state’s air quality regulatory body to keep a close watch on the ports and raising concerns among environmentalists and nearby residents. Port officials, for their part, stated that current pollution levels are a concern — but they are committed to reducing pollution in the long run.

It is not just the ships that contribute to air pollution. The current congestion has increased emissions from transport-related sources in and around the ports, showing a negative impact on air quality, according to a California Air Resources Board report released September 13. According to the CARB’s report, the massive amounts of cargo also result in significant activity from trucks and trains that must transport the containers out of the ports.

As of March, increased cargo movement and congestion — caused by container vessels, trains, and heavy-duty trucks — resulted in an overall increase of 14.5 tonnes per day of NOx (nitrogen oxide) and 27 tonnes per day of particulate matter in the South Coast Air Basin.

Air Quality Degradation In The Port of Los Angeles:

The year 2020 began with Los Angeles observing a lengthy period of smog-free days that coincided with the implementation of coronavirus stay-at-home orders, giving hopes that drastic reductions in car emissions would at the very least clean the air. 

However, this did not last long. Instead, the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021 will go down as one of the smoggiest periods in Southern California. Pollution is not always caused by vehicles on wheels. The ships, tugboats, and ferries that dock at California’s ports and harbours also contribute significantly to air pollution.

For the first eight months of this year, the port handled 7.27 million TEUs, observing a 30.3% increase over the same period in 2020. In September, the port received approximately 930,000 TEUs, up from approximately 880,000 TEUs last year. October is also expected to be a very busy month. Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, has forecasted 950,000 TEUs for next month.

Since 2005, Port of Long Beach has worked to improve air quality by implementing the Clean Trucks Program, requiring ships to use low-sulfur fuel, increasing the use of shore power by cargo ships, and implementing the Green Flag Vessel Speed Reduction Program.

Additionally, Port of Long Beach stated that it is continuing to reduce emissions through the use of on-dock rail, advanced technologies, and collaborative efforts with the Port of Los Angeles on Supply Chain Optimization and the development of the Clean Air Action Plan’s next update.

Container ships waiting to berth at the ports of Los Angeles or Long Beach, 2021-10-26

Unfortunately, with the recent development of congestion at two of the busiest ports in the USA, the rise in air pollution has only seen an upward curve lately. Up to 60 ships anchored outside the LA port are pumping harmful fumes into the air, polluting the coastal waters, and contributing to the state’s climate instability.

There’s little data released by the two ports on the pollution effect of congestion, so we had to calculate the CO2 emitted by ships waiting to berth at the LA ports using our own emission calculation model based on AIS and other maritime data. In order to showcase the severity of the congestion, which, at the latest had over 100 vessels queuing for berth space, we compiled a year-on-year analysis of vessel activity and pollution data from 2020 and 2021. 

Auxiliary engines are mainly used for power production onboard, and support the main propulsion engine. Boilers are used for ship propulsion primarily.

Trade and Economic Loss: 

There are growing concerns about holiday season shopping due to cargo delays and long waits for berth space at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. If the congestion persists into November, it is predicted that disruption of up to $90 billion worth of goods could occur.

For several months, cargo volumes have been increasing. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global supply chain, shifting the burden of rising demand to suppliers, resulting in scarcity of goods and containers and higher prices for consumers.

The surge has increased pressure on the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, which is already the largest in the United States and ranks ninth globally. Together, the ports handle 40% of container imports and 30% of exports in the United States and serve as a vital entry point for imported goods from Asia.

Two scenarios are presented in an analysis based on 2020 data that simulates the disruption at both ports. Scenario one entails a delay of $49.4 billion in trade, including $4 billion in clothing. Scenario two depicts a delay of $90 billion in trade, including $6.2 billion in clothing.

To lessen the backlog, the ports in California have now agreed to extend the work hours whereby trucks may pick up and return containers as well.

Earlier this week, the mayor of Long Beach, Robert Garcia, publicly stated that the ports in Southern California are working with the Biden’s administration and the Department of Transportation to cut down on ship delays.

Calm Before The Storm?

The transportation of goods between Asia and America had initially been slowed down by the Covid-19 pandemic, labour shortages and now, the trade route is fraught with port congestion. According to industry experts and insiders, it is taking around 80 days to transfer products across the Pacific, around twice as long as it was before the pandemic. 

Some of the top U.S. retailers by sales, namely Walmart, Home Depot Inc, Costco Wholesale Corp, Target Corp. and more recently, Amazon, are paying for their chartered vessels as part of broader attempts to avoid supply chain disruptions: albeit an expensive and complex solution for most. Certain chains are passing on these additional expenses to consumers by increasing product pricing. They hired ships that are smaller than the usual container ships and transport only a small portion of overall imports. These ships with a capacity of about 1,000 containers are nearly twice as costly as a normal 20,000-container freighter.

Experts believe the port congestion around the coast of Southern California and at other major ports around the globe is more than just an aberration from the pandemic era. Retail imports and e-commerce sales in the United States are anticipated to skyrocket in the coming years, as are emissions from ships, heavy-duty vehicles, trains, and port equipment, as long as all of those engines continue to use fossil fuels. This is a long-term challenge and measures to prevent the degradation of air quality in such cases must be established by the entirety of the freight sector.

FleetMon together with other prestigious research partners just recently completed the major research project EmissionSEA about the extrapolation of emissions from ships. Visit our Innovation Lab to read more about the methodology and approach we used to calculate CO2 emissions caused by vessels.

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