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Ports see a high volume of ships, vessels, barges and boats on a daily basis making air quality and maritime emissions a particular concern around docks and in port communities –– and those concerns run high.

The Port of Los Angeles, which handles more than 40% of all containerized cargo on the West Coast and at least 17% of all containerized cargo nationwide, was recently the subject of an environmental permitting lawsuit filed by a coalition of community and environmental activists alarmed by the Port’s air emissions.

The suit couldn’t have been unexpected. It has long been known that air pollution impairs lung function and exacerbates chronic health conditions, and together with the Port of Long Beach, the ports make the South Coast Air Basin one of the most polluted air basins in the United States. The South Coast Air Basin is in non-attainment under the federal Clean Air Act for both Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 and ozone, and neighboring communities complain they face the region’s highest cancer risk from air pollution and suffer from some of the highest asthma rates across the state.

Diesel Pollutes Like No Other

PM2.5 is the technical term for the fine inhalable particles emitted into the air from engine exhaust. The name comes from the approximate diameter of the particles – 2.5 micrometers and smaller. By comparison, a human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter. When inhaled, these particles can get deep into your lungs and even reach your bloodstream, posing a real risk to health. That is a big reason why diesel particulate matter, emitted by the many ships, trucks and diesel-powered equipment servicing a port, is classified as a carcinogen in California. Diesel engines are also California’s number one source of nitrogen oxides, and they produce about a quarter of cancer-causing soot emitted statewide.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes diesel’s days should be numbered. In 2016, through its “National Port Strategy Assessment: Reducing Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases at U.S. Ports,” the EPA headlined one of its recommendations with this imperative: “Replace older, dirtier diesel vehicles and equipment first.” It was a pretty stark call out, but given what we know about diesel, it wasn’t unwarranted.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has jumped on this bandwagon with both feet. CARB recently expanded regulations to require more types of ships to control pollution emissions when docked in Californian ports. They are putting teeth into the conversation as well. Just this month, CARB fined Mitsui O.S.K. Line’s Oakland fleet for failing to reduce auxiliary engine power generation by 70% as required while at berth.

Shore Power That’s Not for Sure

How can ships reduce their diesel burn by 70%? Plugging in to shore power – a process called “cold ironing” – has historically been the answer. This effectively means running an extension cord from the ship to the shore and drawing electricity out of California’s grid.

Although far from zero emissions, grid power is cleaner than diesel. But in California where intermittents – solar and wind – accounted for 34% of the state’s electricity production, shore power can’t be counted on as a sure thing to meet maritime demands. California’s massive heat wave has crippled the state’s electrical grid, so much so that the mandate to use shore power had to be suspended several weeks ago. Instead, the vessels –– most transports need about 1.5 to 2 megawatts of power to operate while in ports; cruise ships need as many as 10 –– were allowed to power themselves, and emit criteria pollutants, using the diesel they run on when at sea.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Does it seem strange to segue to a quote by the famous French philosopher Voltaire? If ever there was a time to do it, it’s now. He once said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” – and that’s the exasperating situation we face now.

Decision makers of all types seem to be starry-eyed about transitioning fleets, both marine and land, to electric power. Their belief is that electricity is perfect: it is clean, it produces zero emissions, etc. We know the grid is not filled with clean electrons, but setting that fact aside, the payload, price and performance compromises required to make the transition from diesel to electric are far from perfect, and it’ll take decades to do it in a practical, affordable manner.

On the other hand, we’ve got an energy source capable of replacing diesel-powered drayage trucks and equipment now, and it’s good. We can retire the diesel-powered pollution factories rolling around the nation’s docks with a no-compromise, affordable, abundant and renewable clean energy. It’s propane –– surprised?

These six facts about propane may surprise you even more:

  • Propane engines in drayage trucks reduce NOx emissions by up to 48%.
  • Propane engines in ships and trucks reduce PM2.5 emissions up to 62%.
  • Propane forklifts are less expensive at acquisition than electric and cylinders last up to 30 years.
  • Propane forklift engines produce 97% fewer NOx emissions when compared with similarly-sized diesel forklifts engines.
  • Propane can’t be spilled into sensitive marine waterways. If released, it evaporates into the air, and it is not a greenhouse gas.
  • Propane-powered vehicles can save up to 50% on fuel costs compared to diesel, plus, because propane is a clean fuel, it doesn’t corrode engine parts, and doesn’t require additional emission controls or expensive add-ons to comply with ever more stringent emissions restrictions.

The EPA says that switching to a cleaner fuel is one of the most effective strategies for emissions reduction. By incorporating propane equipment into a port’s day-to-day operations, economic growth can go hand-in-hand with continued improvements in the health and welfare of near-port communities and the safeguarding of our environment.

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About the Author

Jeremy Wishart writes for the Propane Education & Research Council. He can be reached at [email protected].