America’s busiest seaports didn’t start as willing participants in a clean-air derby.
But over the years the twin Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have become the gold standard of the progress that can be made when cooperation leavened with generous amounts of funding replaces conflict.
This evolution is due in part to the trucking industry’s use of the ports as a test bed for myriad demonstrations and pilot projects over the years, which have resulted in the development of clean natural gas engines and the promotion of cleaner diesel engines as well as the feasibility of electrified trucks.
“Because of our unique air-quality issues, we’ve been forced to focus on environmental programs a lot faster,” said Chris Cannon, director of environmental management for the Port of Los Angeles.
Many of the port-based electric truck programs are in their infancy, with several years of real-world testing and data gathering yet to come before meaningful conclusions can be reached.
But trucking and port operations are competitive businesses, always looking for an edge.
“If anything that’s being done at Los Angeles and Long Beach proves to work well, you can expect it to show up at other ports, Mike Tunnell, environmental director for the American Transportation Research Institute, told Trucks.com.
Since 2006, hundreds of millions in state, federal and private funding have gone toward port-based clean-air projects, with much of the funding for programs aimed at truck emissions.
Take the case of the ultra-clean natural gas engine.
When port and air-quality regulators first collaborated on a plan to slash emissions from the thousands of drayage trucks that run between the docks and distribution warehouses situated along the Southern California freeway system, trading diesel for clean-burning natural gas was a goal.
With the help of millions of dollars in public and private development money, there are now two ultra-clean natural gas engines — a 12 liter for Class 8 trucks and an 8.9 liter for medium-duty vehicles from Cummins Westport. Both are certified by the California Air Resources Board as “near-zero” emission engines.
“These development and pilot projects at the ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles have had a huge impact,” Daniel Gage, president of NGVAmerica, told Trucks.com. Members visit other ports and can now show data supporting cost effectiveness and performance of natural gas vehicles, Gage said.
Today, about 700 of the 17,500 heavy trucks registered to use the two ports are powered by natural gas.
Diesel trucks, villains in the ports’ clean-air saga, comprise the rest of the daily traffic. Over the years they’ve gotten appreciably cleaner, but it was dirty diesel exhaust spewing into port-adjacent communities that got things started.
“We were experiencing record growth in the early 2000s, and both ports were doing major terminal improvements,” said Heather Tomley, environmental planning director for the Port of Long Beach. “When the environmental impact review came up, community activists and the regulators objected.”
There were lawsuits, protests and meetings. The ports’ operators — each is a city-owned entity — sat down with regulators and community groups and in 2006 published the world’s first formal plan to clean up air pollution stemming from port operations.
The San Pedro Bay Ports Clean Air Action Plan was most recently updated in 2017. It addresses emissions from cargo ships and the equipment used to move freight from the ships to trucks and trains, as well as emissions from the trucks that move thousands of containers a day from the two ports.
Aside from topping the list of containerized freight ports in the U.S., the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports are the eighth- and ninth-busiest ports in the world.
Truck programs in the plan’s most recent iteration focus heavily on electrification, which includes a mix of hybrid, battery-electric, hybrid and fuel cell electric powertrains.
Among them are Toyota’s ongoing test of its hydrogen fuel cell powertrain for drayage trucks; a Volvo truck electrification demonstration project; a Daimler program to test electric drayage and freight delivery trucks; and electric truck development and demonstration programs from truck makers including Kenworth, Peterbilt, TransPower, U.S. Hybrid and BYD.
Many of the electric truck projects involve just one or two vehicles, but efforts are underway to launch tests involving dozens of trucks. The intent is to gather cost-effectiveness and reliability data — as it has been used for clean diesel and natural gas — that will persuade fleet operators to deploy clean-running electric trucks.
In the meantime, diesel still rules. While cleaner diesel has been a national goal for years and doesn’t fall entirely on the ports alone, their efforts have “accelerated the transition from older technology to newer technology diesel engines,” Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, told Trucks.com.
Numerous port authorities around the country have used funding from the national Diesel Emissions Remission Act to modernize their diesel equipment over the past decade.
But the level of incentives provided at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports is “unique in duration and scope,” Schaeffer said. “No one hands out cash for clean-air projects like California.”
That puts the two ports well ahead of the pack, said Matt Miyasato, chief science and technology officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which administers most of the pilot project grant programs.
“Other ports simply cannot keep up,” Miyasato told Trucks.com. But most others don’t have the air pollution issues that have been driving cleanup efforts at the Southern California ports, he said.
There’s still a long way to go. Air quality in the L.A. Basin remains among the worst in the U.S., and port emissions are a huge contributor.
Trucks are the biggest source of greenhouse gas from the two ports, and the second biggest contributor, behind cargo ships, of other harmful and smog-causing emissions.
But clean truck efforts have had significant impact. The change started in earnest in 2008 with a then-draconian and unpopular decision to ban older trucks with dirtier emissions from working the ports.
Most of the Class 8 drayage trucks registered to work at the ports are now 2008 or newer models.
Less -stringent versions of the two ports’ truck exclusion plan have been adopted by the Port of New York and New Jersey, the Port of Charleston (S.C.) and the Port of Seattle and Tacoma.
“Things being done [in Long Beach and Los Angeles] give clean-air advocates at other places the impetus to ask for the same,” said Melissa Lin Perrella, senior director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s environmental justice and healthy communities program.
Registration is required for trucks to enter the port — traffic is monitored via radio transmitters issued to each registered vehicle.
After Oct. 1, only 2014 model year or newer trucks will be able to register to operate at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Older trucks already registered can continue working, although they will be barred starting in 2023 if they can’t meet 2010 state emissions standards.
Emissions are estimated based on the number of port visits and type of engine for each truck.
The most recent emissions inventory published by the ports, for their 2017 fiscal years, shows that at the Port of Los Angeles, diesel particulates of all types from heavy trucks are down 96 percent from 2005 levels. Other harmful emissions also have decreased. Nitrogen oxides, or NOx; sulfur oxides, or SOx; and CO2 emissions are down 76, 90 and 18 percent, respectively.
For heavy-duty trucks at the Port of Long Beach, particulates have dropped 97 percent, and CO2 emissions are down 24 percent. NOx emissions are down 79 percent, and SOx has fallen 91 percent.
“There’s just no question about it. The ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach have set a very positive example for the rest of the nation,” John Boesel, president of the clean transportation technologies coalition Calstart, told Trucks.com.
“I don’t think others would be pushing ahead with clean truck efforts without the examples from these two ports that it can be done and be economically viable,” Boesel said.