Mon, Aug

Unplugged Supertankers and the Diesel Death Zone at LA’s Port

ENVIRONMENT - Residents of the South Coast Air Quality Basin are caught in a Catch 22 with regard to the new Plains All American supertanker berth:

No air quality agency regulates the plugging into shore-side power by the supertankers that will soon dock in Los Angeles; not the South Coast Quality Management District (AQMD) nor the California Air Quality Board (CARB).

Despite neighborhood protests, the Port of Los Angeles has agreed to allow dirty docking of more than three-a-week of these supertankers for the next 15 years, and 40 annually forever after. As a result, these massive ships will run their auxiliary engines night and day while at dock instead of plugging in and using electric power (also called alternative marine power--AMP). For the first 10 years of operations, fully 85% of all tanker calls (up to 170 a year) will not plug in.

This will cause massive and additional air pollution in an area that is already a federal non-attainment zone for air quality. Neighbors’ protests have not moved the Port of LA. Residents are now proposing that excess profits generated from hundreds of ships that are not plugged into shore-side power pay an AMP-offset fee that would subsidize electric cars and solar roofs in the Harbor Area and beyond.

The AQMD is currently considering the Plains All American proposal for a Supertanker berth and tank farm in the Port of Los Angeles, but it does not regulate mobile sources of pollution. That’s because the Supertankers are considered mobile sources of pollution even though all the off-loading engine operations would be done while the ships are docked.

The ships will run engines 24 hours a day to heat crude and to pump it over the side, where shore-side pumps will take over.

Neighbors had hoped CARB, which does regulate ship emissions, would step in, but oddly while CARB does regulate ship emissions, it does NOT have any regulations governing tankers.

The project is owned and operated by Houston-based Plains All American Pipeline, LP. Under the proposed 30-year lease, Plains would annually dock and unload up to 201 Supertankers or Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) at Pier 400. Each Supertanker would carry about 2.5 million barrels of crude.  The company is seeking two Title V permits from the AQMD.

The Supertanker docking facility would be built at berth 408 on the southwesterly face of Pier 400, which is nearest to Angels Gate entrance to LA harbor; a mile from Cabrillo Beach. The project includes several crude oil tank farms on Piers 300 and 400, as well as pipelines facilities. Construction, including significant pile driving operations, would take up to 3 years.

Residents and others have sharply criticized the Port for failing to require that all Port of LA bound Supertankers turn off their engines and are plugged into dockside electricity. AMP significantly reduces pollution from vessels in port. Air pollution from docked ships is reduced 88 to 98 percent by AMP, according to the environmental impact report (EIR) on the project.

Diesel emissions have been tied to increased risk for lung cancer, asthma and respiratory disease. A 2005 Air Resources Board (ARB) exposure study at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach shows that more than 2 million people live in areas around the ports and they have an increased cancer risk and a substantial increased health risk due to emissions from docked ocean-going vessels. From that study and other data, ARB estimates that about 61 premature deaths per year can be attributed to exposure to diesel exhaust generated from ships in port.

Plains says that business realities make it impossible to require that all VLCC using the terminal have AMP capability because some ships will be making infrequent calls in Los Angeles. Currently, because of lax or no AMP requirements at ports worldwide there is a limited availability of AMP-capable VLCCs.

As approved by the harbor commissioners, even in the year 2026, fully 50% of the Supertankers (100 vessels) unloading crude at the new terminal will NOT be required to use AMP while docked in Los Angeles. Even in the 16th year of operations and beyond, 40 vessels (20% or more than one a week) will not be required to use AMP.

Residents who live in the Diesel Death Zone around the Port of LA say that if the project proceeds without further air quality mitigation, then shippers should pay an AMP-offset fee to share with the public some of the financial benefit realized because they can unload at the terminal without offloading their crude in an offshore lightering operation. This is the current practice for most VLCCs coming to Southern California, and it can cost up to $2 million a load.

Residents want the AMP-offset fee to support a residential solar and electric car subsidy program paid for by Plains or the shippers. It would create local jobs, build green business and provide a real benefit to residents. It would also advance Los Angeles and Southern California as a green region, help transition the area from total reliance on gasoline and coal-fired electric power, while providing the petroleum needed to run local refineries.  

The subsidy would reduce the price of a residential solar system to about $5,500, making residential solar affordable and providing some offset for the additional pollution. The electric car subsidy would help build the state fund that promotes zero emission car sales.

Plains has refused to consider the plan, saying it prefers to contribute to local charities. Shippers are notoriously resistant to any green proposals, yet they profit at the expense of the health of area residents while reaping the cost savings of not having to either lighter their VLCCs or equip them with AMP.

Officials estimate that (depending on the current price of crude) the project will import between $20 billion and $70 billion worth of crude a year. If Plains receives 1% of that as a fee, it will gross between $200 million and $700 million a year.

By one standard calculation, each tanker trip docking at Pier 400 will save the owners of the crude oil at least $2 million per shipment; that is in the reduction in the cost of transferring the crude from Supertankers to smaller vessels offshore, the current method of offloading crude from VLCCs.

As the Diesel Death Zone residents are advocating, ‘plug-in or pay-in’ seems to be the mitigation of choice and wisdom. The pay-in fees would go to a fund that makes for a green community beside the Port and at the same time would be a plus for Plains, the Port and the City.

The supertanker industry should be a part of the change to a new energy future. But to ensure that future, action must be taken now.

(Peter M. Warren is Chair of the  Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council Port & Environment
Committee. He can be reached at: [email protected])

Tags: Port of LA, South Coast, air quality, Plains All American, AQMD, CARB, supertankers

Vol 9 Issue 46
Pub: June 10, 2011