Plan calls for L.A., Long Beach ports to go to zero-emissions technology; cost could hit $14 billion

The Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex will seek to slash air pollution and health risks to Southern Californians by replacing diesel trucks and cargo equipment with zero-emissions technology over the next two decades. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The nation’s largest port complex will seek to slash air pollution and health risks to Southern Californians by replacing diesel trucks and cargo equipment with zero-emissions technology over the next two decades, according to a plan released Wednesday.

The Long Beach and Los Angeles ports’ Clean Air Action Plan aims to further reduce health-damaging and planet-warming emissions at the sprawling hub for thousands of freight-moving trucks, trains and ships — at a projected cost of up to $14 billion in public and private funds.

Despite steep reductions in diesel emissions over the last decade, the ports remain Southern California’s largest single source of air pollution. Their operations drive up smog levels as far away as the Inland Empire and afflict residents in harbor-area communities with higher asthma rates and cancer risk in what has been labeled the “diesel death zone.”

The plan sets goals of switching to zero-emission cargo-handling equipment by 2030 and zero-emission trucks by 2035. It also sets targets to slash port-related greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and to 80% by 2050.

“These ports are going where no port has gone before,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka. “Based on what we’ve already accomplished to promote healthy, robust trade through our gateway, we’re ready to make history again, looking at a new array of technologies and strategies to further lower port-related emissions in the decades ahead.”

Environmentalists, however, criticized the plan’s lack of new targets for reducing smog-forming emissions as well as measures to ensure speedy progress. And industry groups and truckers expressed concern about the hefty price tag.

The one thing all can agree on is that the transition will not be easy.

Diesel powers 96% of trucks serving the complex, with only three electric or hybrid vehicles among the 16,879 active big rigs at the facilities, port records show. Less than 9% of the ports’ terminal equipment is zero-emissions.

To make the transformation, the ports will rely on a suite of measures to encourage the elimination of diesel-fueled cranes, yard tractors and other cargo-handling equipment as well as the replacement of diesel big rigs with near-zero-emissions technologies such as natural gas. The plan then would use incentives to switch trucks to battery-electric, fuel cell or other technologies still under development.

The plan also contemplates measures to reduce pollution from ships as they approach and dock at the ports.

Key to the plan is a clean trucks program that, starting in 2018, would require new big rigs entering the ports’ registry to have engines model year 2014 or newer. In 2023, new trucks joining the registry would have to meet a stricter, near-zero-emissions standard; those that don’t would be charged a fee to enter port terminals.

By 2035, only zero-emission vehicles would be exempted from those charges.

The ports project the plan will cost an additional $8 billion to $14 billion compared with what it would cost to continue operating with traditionally fueled equipment and vehicles.

The bulk of the spending would go toward replacing the big rigs that now serve the ports with cleaner and zero-emisisons models — which are not yet commercially available and will be considerably more expensive.

Business groups said the plan’s high cost will place too heavy a burden on Southern California’s economy and put its freight-moving industries at a disadvantage at a time of increasing competition with other seaports. Truckers fear those costs will be passed onto them.

The L.A.-Long Beach ports handle roughly 40% of U.S. imports, and trade through the complex supports hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the region.

“If we miss the opportunity to balance ongoing environmental progress with policies that increase throughput and ensure competitiveness, the region’s economy, businesses and residents will suffer,” said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Assn.

McLaurin criticized the ports’ projections for the cost of switching to zero-emission terminal equipment as “pie-in-the-sky budgeting” and predicted dramatically higher costs that “will not occur with a corresponding increase in shipping container volume or efficiency.”

Adrian Martinez, an attorney at the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, said, “Industry always claims cleaning up harmful air pollution is too expensive, and this plan makes clear zero emissions is key to solving the port pollution crisis.”

He and other environmental activists welcome the move away from diesel-fueled trucks and equipment as a key step toward reducing smog levels and health risks. But they faulted the plan as lacking specific deadlines that would ensure that transition, such as new targets for reducing smog-forming nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the document a “critical first step.”

“Our port can be the global model for clean air, healthy communities and effective operations,” Garcetti said.

Some of the ports’ strategies rely on actions pledged this year by state air quality regulators, who plan to draft regulations targeting emissions from ships and cargo-handling equipment.

The plan is the second update since 2006, when the ports launched a comprehensive pollution-reduction effort after pressure from community activists and environmentalists over health-damaging diesel emissions. That plan — which included a Clean Trucks Program banning older, dirtier trucks as well as programs to reduce emissions from cargo ships — resulted in dramatic reductions in diesel emissions and fine particulate matter.

But progress on port pollution has tapered off in recent years.

After environmentalists criticized a draft document released last fall and questioned the ports’ commitment to continued action, Garcetti and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia signed a declaration last month pledging to move to zero-emissions at the ports.

Other obstacles also loom.

Port officials said the projected cost of going to zero emissions dwarfs the estimated $2 million it cost to implement the previous plan. In fact, the new proposal is being billed as “the largest environmental investment ever undertaken by a port complex” — one that cannot be successful without huge investments from the state and federal government.

Success also will require massive spending on new charging and fueling infrastructure, as well as considerable technological advances, according to the plan.

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