Port Houston can't do better by the environment without better goals
To spend a day at the Port of Houston is to see a modern marvel of logistics. Dozens of container ships stocked with food, furniture, clothes, and cars from all over the world cruise up the Houston Ship Channel, docking at one of the port’s two container terminals.
A team of longshoremen greet the vessels, using giant, diesel-powered cranes to remove and stack the 20- and 40-foot containers like multi-colored Legos. On the opposite end of the terminal, thousands of trucks snake to the gate, past security, over to the containers, where crane operators will carefully lower them on the truck’s chassis. On a good day, the trucks are each in and out in 40 minutes.
The hyper-efficiency of the port’s operations, while impressive, comes with a significant environmental cost: the ocean-going vessels, cargo-handling equipment, and trucks make up three of the largest sources of emissions at the Port of Houston.
The port handles around 3.5 million containers per year, but officials plan to double that number over the next decade. The 375-acre Bayport container terminal, for instance, will eventually grow to 550 acres, with three new wharves and nine more cranes. Such expansions only stand to worsen air quality.
While the Port of Houston’s pollution is hardly unique for a major port — cargo ships collectively spew an average of 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year — rival ports are developing cohesive strategies to move toward cleaner, healthier practices. In 2017, Los Angeles and Long Beach officials pledged to transform the nation’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, committed in April to zero emissions by 2050. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved last month a new interim target of eliminating or offsetting greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2030.
Of course, these ports’ bold decarbonization goals are only as strong as the new policies that underpin them. The Port of Seattle, for example, developed a comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions inventory, allowing it to set goals of reducing its highest emissions. In March 2020, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach voted to impose a small fee on shipping containers in order to help truckers buy cleaner vehicles.
While the Port of Houston has demonstrated that it is attuned to the challenges of climate change, its leadership has thus far declined to make any ambitious proclamations on reducing emissions and overall pollution, preferring an ad hoc approach that flies under the radar.
When questioned why the port isn’t keeping up with its competitors in reaching a zero-emissions goal, Rich Byrnes, chief infrastructure officer for the Port of Houston, told the editorial board that the port is “not going to promise what we can’t deliver.”
“I think the tradition at the port has been don't boast about things that you're gonna do; talk about what you did,” he said. “So we don't go out and make these grandiose targets.”
Grandiose is one thing. Serious goals are another. Any successful CEO, athlete or political leader will tell you that you reach greater heights by raising expectations, not lowering them.
It’s true that the port has made strides in cleaning up its practices. Officials say they spend $10 million a year on “sustainability initiatives.” In 2020, the port entered into a 10-year renewable electricity contract through which all of its public facilities receive electricity from a solar farm in West Texas. It has also implemented a carbon reduction program, beginning to replace high-mast lighting with LEDs and purchasing new hybrid cranes to replace the older, diesel-powered machines. Most recently, after pressure from community and environmental groups, it agreed to move forward with cleaner equipment for Project 11, its signature $1 billion effort to dredge and widen the Houston Ship Channel.
Yet in declining to set measurable targets and benchmarks for environmental sustainability, the port is effectively skirting accountability for reducing its pollution. Its Sustainability Action Plan includes 27 potential projects that would advance the port’s environmental goals, from investing in a fleet of electric trucks to enhancing green spaces in port-adjacent communities. Yet these initiatives are all unfunded ideas which rely heavily on outside funding and private sector partnerships to succeed. The $10 million commitment to environmental sustainability requires greater clarification — what is that money going toward that will substantially reduce pollution? Even the renewable energy program — which aims to reduce 250,000 tons of carbon emissions over 10 years — is relatively meaningless if it’s not attached to an inventory of how much emissions the port produces. It’s not enough for port officials to proclaim they’ve reduced the carbon footprint by 55 percent since 2016. Show us the work.
Cleaning up ports across the globe is a major component to solving the existential crisis of climate change, but it’s also crucial for improving the health of nearby neighborhoods where residents have been forced to inhale other forms of pollution every day. Greenhouse gases by themselves aren’t like traditional air pollution — they don’t smog up a horizon, for instance, or make it harder to breathe. But many of the activities that produce carbon emissions also pump other pollution into the air, too.
The same heavy-duty, diesel-fueled trucks that transport containers and bulk freight between the port and various rail facilities and distribution centers belch diesel emissions that swirl into adjacent communities from Pleasantville to the Fifth Ward to Baytown. Families living along the Houston Ship Channel — where real estate and rents are far more affordable — live with daily assaults on 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 for the rest of Houston. A University of Texas School of Public Health study found that children living within 2 miles of the Ship Channel are 56 percent more likely to develop a specific type of leukemia than those living 10 miles away.
The port commissioners will have another chance to do right by these distressed communities when they unveil their long-awaited Clean Air Strategy Plan in the coming weeks. We urge commissioners and Chairman Ric Campo to commit to a goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 90 percent by 2050, with clear plans to fund the initiatives needed to fulfill that ambition.
The port leadership should also make a much more substantial financial commitment toward creating a zero-emissions supply chain. The Environmental Defense Fund has requested the port commit 5 percent of its gross revenues — roughly $20 million per year — toward cleaner equipment, from tugboats to trucks to trains. That’s a more than reasonable down payment on better air quality for all Houstonians.
Without these meaningful commitments, Port Houston will be left behind its competitors, and the city and its residents will suffer for it.
This editorial originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board is made up of opinion journalists with wide-ranging expertise whose consensus opinions and endorsements represent the voice of the institution — defined as the board members, their editor and the publisher. The board is separate from the newsroom and other sections of the paper.
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