Faster Freight Does Not Mean Cleaner Air

Last week, I attended a shipping industry love-fest in New York called “Faster Freight, Cleaner Air.”  Yes, that’s right, the industry types reading from the rosy scenario script wanted to reassure each other that our nation’s cargo movement system is great, and we just need more of it.

With one exception, enviros were excluded from the panels, and for good reason if the program’s steering committee wanted to protect their colleagues from any reality-based bad news.  That one exception was my NRDC colleague Rich Kassel, who bluntly told the audience that our freight system now is slow and dirty, and if we keep trying to build our way out of this problem using today’s technologies, it will become slower and dirtier. 

Real solutions are available, but they cost money.  Low-sulfur marine fuel is available on the market but costs twice as much as dirty bunker fuel.  “Cold ironing,” or plugging ships at dock into electric power, is feasible but there are up-front costs to build the needed infrastructure.  The 2007 model diesel trucks are 60 times cleaner than pre-1989 trucks, but can cost $150,000 – a sum that is way out of reach for the independent owner-operators who dominate the industry at the ports. 

These are costs that industry does not want to bear – and why should they, given that they have been successful for decades in having the public pay for the public health and infrastructure costs that they create.  In short, they like to socialize the costs but privatize the profits from goods movement.

As Rich pointed out, this has to end.  NRDC is working with coalition partners around the country to make sure that it does – and to make sure that more freight doesn’t mean more cancer, more asthma, more days off work, and more hospitalizations for the millions of Americans living near our ports, freeways and rail lines.