green and sustainable business

Seattle, Tacoma push their “Green Gateway” status

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gg_logo1Size and distance matters a great deal when it comes to solidifying Pacific Northwest ports’ status as the “Green Gateway” for cargoes moving out of Asia.

It seems inherently obvious that the larger the cargo vessel and the shorter the route that its cargo has to travel, greenhouse gas emissions will lessen. What the Puget Sound ports of Seattle and Tacoma have done, for the first time it appears, is actually quantify this carbon footprint conclusion.

They did so in a study released Monday that estimates the GHG emissions from the delivery of cargo containers from the four most common-sized container ships in use – 4,500 TEUs, 6,500 TEUs, 8,500 TEUs, and 12,500 TEUs. The TEU, or 20-foot container equivalent unit, is the standard measure of all those ubiquitous boxes that are stacked on ships, rolling behind trucks or double-stacked on trains.

Their conclusion: The lowest emission route to ship cargo from Asia to the U.S. Midwest is through the Puget Sound – what they call the “Green Gateway” for trade.

“The carbon study results are good news, and a great boost to our efforts to measure and reduce our environmental impact,” said Port of Seattle CEO Tay Yoshitani. “Our ongoing sustainability initiatives have created a Green Gateway that is good for our environment and our customers.”

It also adds environmental street-cred in the continuing competitive commercial battle between intermodal rail and all-water container services by taking aim from a carbon footprint perspective on the advantages of rail services from West Coast ports over all-water services to the Gulf and East coasts.

The study confirms “what we’ve known for a long time,” says Port of Tacoma Executive Director Tim Farrell. “This region has been a truly green gateway for a long time, and our customers are helping us demonstrate that businesses can do well by doing good.”

The study analyzes the carbon footprints of trade routes between Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, and the U.S. distribution hubs of Chicago, Columbus and Memphis, as well as routes that use US East and Gulf Coast ports via the Panama and Suez canals. It was commissioned by the Port of Seattle and conducted by Herbert Engineering, a ship design, engineering and transportation consulting firm based in California.gg_final_map_for_web

A study comparison of the emissions of ocean-going containerships and domestic rail service finds that marine transportation emits about 1.5 to 2.25 less carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per TEU-mile than rail transportation. “This relationship favors shipping over rail transportation when travel distances are comparable,” the study continues. But the ocean distance from Asian ports to the West Coast ports and in particular the ports of Prince Rupert in British Columbia and Seattle “are so much shorter than the (all-water) distances to the East Coast ports that this more than offsets the detrimental impact of the longer rail distances from the West Coast ports.”

The report also finds that shipping though Seattle provides the lowest overall carbon emissions from the three Asian departure ports used in the study, when the cargo continues on to inland container terminals at Chicago and Columbus.

Prince Rupert, emerging as major rival to Seattle and Tacoma in intermodal rail services to the Midwest, has a similar emissions footprint. When shipping to Memphis, the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland have the lowest emissions.

The carbon footprint advantages from West Coast ports “can be quite significant,” the study says.  For example, “carbon emissions expressed in terms of emissions per TEU moves are approximately 41% lower when moving a container between Shanghai and Chicago via the port of Seattle on a 8,500 TEU containership, as opposed to moving the same container between Shanghai and Chicago via the Panama Canal and the port of New York/New Jersey on a 4,500 TEU containership. The latter-sized vessel is the largest that can currently fit through the canal.

View the study, “Carbon Footprint Study for the Asia to North America Intermodal Trade,” here.


Written by William DiBenedetto

4 May, 2009 at 12:20 pm

One Response

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  1. Interesting article. I must say it is a bit surprising because there are reports that say rail service is extremely efficient, as much as 436 miles per gallon of fuel.


    I also believe that more efforts are being done to increase the efficiency of locomotives (GE is in the process of manufacturing hybrid engines) than cargo ships.

    Nonetheless, I think it only helps the cause. The oceanic distance to the west coast is clearly shorter and improving our rail system would only add to the benefit of a so-called “Green Gateway.”

    T. Caine

    4 May, 2009 at 2:41 pm

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