Executive Briefings

Environmental Impact of Panama Canal Expansion on U.S. Ports Remains Unclear

The current expansion of the Panama Canal, expected to be completed by early 2015, creates tremendous opportunities for the global freight transportation industry and may have significant effects on many ports in the United States, particularly in Houston and other Gulf areas. The environmental implications of the expansion are less clear.

However, a peer-reviewed article explores the ramifications of the expansion. "Panama Canal Expansion: Emission Changes from Possible U.S. West Coast Modal Shift ," is featured in a special issue of the journal Carbon Management. This paper, a collaboration by researchers at the University of Delaware, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), estimates changes in carbon dioxide emissions and regional criteria pollutant emissions such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

The study found that using larger, more efficient container ships instead of the traditional truck/rail overland network for East Coast-bound cargo may not necessarily offset the increase in carbon emissions resulting from a longer waterborne distance traveled. Although the carbon effects may be negligible, localized air pollution is anticipated to rise in ports with projected growth in cargo volume. This includes the emissions of criteria pollutants that increase the risk for health impacts, such as asthma and lung disease. Ports located in federal non-attainment areas, such as the Port of Houston, could be faced with additional traffic from the Panama Canal expansion that creates further air quality concerns. Although some ports, shippers and carriers are working to improve their environmental performance, more needs to be done to ensure we leverage the opportunities from an enhanced Panama Canal.

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However, a peer-reviewed article explores the ramifications of the expansion. "Panama Canal Expansion: Emission Changes from Possible U.S. West Coast Modal Shift ," is featured in a special issue of the journal Carbon Management. This paper, a collaboration by researchers at the University of Delaware, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), estimates changes in carbon dioxide emissions and regional criteria pollutant emissions such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

The study found that using larger, more efficient container ships instead of the traditional truck/rail overland network for East Coast-bound cargo may not necessarily offset the increase in carbon emissions resulting from a longer waterborne distance traveled. Although the carbon effects may be negligible, localized air pollution is anticipated to rise in ports with projected growth in cargo volume. This includes the emissions of criteria pollutants that increase the risk for health impacts, such as asthma and lung disease. Ports located in federal non-attainment areas, such as the Port of Houston, could be faced with additional traffic from the Panama Canal expansion that creates further air quality concerns. Although some ports, shippers and carriers are working to improve their environmental performance, more needs to be done to ensure we leverage the opportunities from an enhanced Panama Canal.

Read Full Article