Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Baby Steps

The maps above show the intermodal density maps for several large rail operators, and reveals the volume of rail activity across the country. Rail is a huge part of the equation for energy consumption and pollution in all regions, but the picture is immediate and obvious in the scale of activity locally here in the Los Angeles basin. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest container seaports in North America. The two ports combined move more than $350 billion worth of goods and materials annually. (Here's my earlier discussion of the rail network.)

That, combined with our unique geography of mountains that ring the regions and capture pollutants under an inversion layer, makes our environment the third worst air quality region in the nation, even under the old EPA standards that remain in force as Obama just recently scrapped new EPA regulations.

The ports have made a commitment to reducing these pollutants as well as lowering emissions of toxic chemicals. They are among the biggest contributors to the environmental problems we're dealing with, as well as the player with the largest capability of making major changes to the big environmental picture. Since the ports require upgrades and rebuilding in order to handle the growing cargo traffic, major upgrades are being incorporated into the rebuilt infrastructure. Many strategies are being implemented to deal with the transport issues.

These include The improvements to existing port rail stock and enhancement of the short rail system for "first-mile" and "last-mile" cargo loading and unloading. Their Clean Trucks Program was just recently decided in favor of the ports, which means that trucking companies are responsible for keeping the rigs in compliance with the emissions guidelines, weak as they are.

BNSF Railway has proposed a Southern California International Gateway (SCIG). This near-dock rail facility, located a few miles from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, could allow cargo to be transferred onto rail closer to the ports, increasing use of the Alameda Corridor and improving local traffic and air quality. This is controversial due to its impact on residential areas near the ports, but it gets the truck traffic off of the 710 freeway by relocating the rail yards 20 miles closer to the ports.

This is among many steps the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are undertaking, but some game-changers would rapidly transform the region and move it towards Net Zero energy consumption and emissions. The ports have technology incubators that are developing new initiatives to address these issues. PortTechLA and San Pedro Bay Port Technologies Development Center
are examples of the kinds of incubators that can team with cities and universities to bring innovation into the redevelopment picture.

For example, at the international scale, energy is the biggest single driver in the environmental picture. China is buying energy in this country in the form of extractive oil and tar sands with its contracts and investments within the USA to foster its growth. A better scenario would be for the ports to be part of an energy production center on the coast, with biofuels from algae, which can be produced and sold without the destructive impact of mining and drilling. These renewable fuels are easily and most cheaply shipped from the ports to global destinations, as well as burning the biofuels as they go. In this very big picture, it's a major impact that can also clean up the ports and eliminate the toxic load of oil production and refining. When you have a clean port, then people will be interested in living in the area. Port cities have been the most vital and dynamic cities throughout history, and an integration of living areas, commerce, and restored environmental marshes and habitat could create a new nexus for Los Angeles that actually regenerates the environment rather than retaining the old destructive industries, even as it accommodates more living space for people in a sustainable way.