Port of Oakland Faces New Challenges During Peak Season

While the Port of Oakland is widely recognized as the chief U.S. West Coast gateway for exports, volume is down 1.8 percent through six months of 2018.

The Port of Oakland is embarking on a goal to achieve emission-free cargo operations. Zero-emission cargo operations would require most port trucks and terminal equipment be powered by sources other than diesel fuel. Photo courtesy of Port of Oakland

BY PATRICK BURNSON

 

While the Port of Oakland is widely recognized as the chief U.S. West Coast gateway for exports, volume is down 1.8 percent through six months of 2018. Exports decreased 4.7 percent in June, which port spokespeople attribute to a strong U.S. dollar that makes American goods costlier overseas.

 

That’s the bad news. But the good news is that inbound numbers continue to impress. Indeed, containerized import volume reached an all-time high in June, according to data recently released. Oakland handled the equivalent of 87,207 20-foot import containers in June. That beat the previous monthly record of 84,835 containers set last July.

 

June import volume was up 8.7 percent over June 2017, with spokespeople saying that two factors may have led to the increase. First, peak season—the summer-fall period when most U.S. imports from Asia are shipped—is expected to be strong. Second, importers may have ordered aggressively in June ahead of tariffs imposed last month by the U.S. and China.

 

“Retailers have been forecasting a good peak season for containerized imports, so June’s numbers weren’t surprising,” said Port of Oakland Maritime Director John Driscoll. “But there’s uncertainty over the international trade picture, so we’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”

 

Mike Zampa, the port’s communi-cations director, said that it’s too soon to project the impact of 2018 tariff increases on cargo from China. The increases would have affected about $225 million of China imports had they been in place last year.

 

Zampa said that total container volume in Oakland is up 2.3 percent so far this year. That’s in line with a January port forecast calling for two to three percent growth in 2018. “Our monthly trade volume report has a twist this time,” he added. “Strong peak season expectations are running into trade war concerns.”

 

Port of Oakland Announces Commitment to Emissions-Free Cargo Operations

The Port of Oakland also announced last month that it has embarked on a path to emissions-free cargo operations. The ambitious target is at the heart of a draft air quality improvement plan sent out for public review last June. It calls for reducing criteria pollutants and greenhouse gases at Oakland’s seaport—technology, feasibility and budget willing.

 

“This is a bold and ambitious plan. Achieving a zero-emissions seaport will take years, requiring substantial invest-ments in transformative technology, new infrastructure and equipment,” said Richard Sinkoff, director of environ-mental programs and planning at the port and principal architect of its clean-air plan. “But we are 100 percent committed to eliminating emissions related to the movement of containerized trade, wherever and as soon as we can.”

 

Called the Draft Seaport Air Quality 2020 and Beyond Plan, the 30-page document would transform how Oakland operates. It proposes everything from electric trucks to new infrastructure to eradicate freight transport emissions. It would attack both diesel particulate and greenhouse gas emissions.

 

The port said its plan specifies three primary clean-air strategies: Continuing with a 2009 plan that calls for an 85 percent reduction in diesel emissions by 2020; promoting a pathway to zero-emissions equipment and operations that reflects the state of California’s 2030 and 2050 greenhouse gas goals; and building out infrastructure—including electrical systems—to support a future less reliant on diesel-emitting cargo handling equipment and trucks.

 

Zero-emission operations means most port trucks and terminal equipment would be powered by sources other than diesel fuel. Alternatives could include battery power or other fuel from renewable sources, the port said. Under the plan, visiting vessels in Oakland would continue switching off engines and plugging into the landside power grid. Nearly 80 percent of ships calling Oakland do that now. The plan promotes higher levels of shore power use.

 

The port didn’t put a price tag on its plan, but said implementation would be costly. It added that public sector funding and investments by businesses serving the port would be essential in moving toward emissions-free operations.

 

Such plans are not without their critics, however. The Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, for example, has been calling similar zero-emission schemes job killers that will discourage the next generation of cargo vessels from calling ports in California.

 

To date, Oakland has yet to attract a fully-loaded direct sailing from Asia. This is not for lack of trying, however. Recent trade missions have been launched, and the port continues to maintain that this is a priority. Meanwhile, Oakland’s draft plan arrives as the state of California is formulating stricter regulations for cargo transport. The state is expected to curtail diesel-powered freight hauling and put tougher restrictions on all sources of emissions in the next few years. California ports, including Oakland, have developed their own plans in advance of new state mandates.

 

Patrick Burnson is the executive editor of Logistics Management. www.logisticsmgmt.com