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The Short Sea Shipping Option: Short-Sighted?

Bill DiBenedetto | Tuesday February 1st, 2011 | 0 Comments

It’s entirely possible that short sea shipping, long touted as an economically viable and environmentally sound option for transporting domestic cargo and products, is not all it’s cracked up to be, according to a Friends of the Earth report.

Short sea shipping is the regional transport—on lakes, bays, rivers, canals and coastlines—of freight by ship and tug and barge units, rather than by truck or railcar.

The FOE report, funded by the San Francisco Foundation, says the environmental consequences of increased short sea shipping have not received enough scrutiny, especially with regard to potentially harmful health and environmental effects.The report,“Expanding Short Sea Shipping in California: Environmental Impacts and Recommended Best Practices,”  is basically a response to a proposed short sea shipping project in the San Francisco Bay Area. The proposed operation would include container-on-barge sailings between the Port of Oakland and the Port of West Sacramento and between Oakland and the Port of Stockton.

U.S. domestic freight volume is projected to increase more than 65 percent from 1998 levels by 2020 and international freight levels will rise even more rapidly, FOE says. As a result state and federal entities such as the Department of Transportation and the Maritime Administration—along with the maritime industry—have called for an expansion of short sea shipping in domestic waters to accommodate the anticipated increase in domestic freight movements, especially containerized goods.

Landside congestion and infrastructure decay are both costly to fix, the argument goes, and so coastal shipping provides a relatively inexpensive alternative. Short sea proponents also say that coastal sea lanes—also known as the “Marine Highway”—are underused. They cite the example of Europe, which hauls about 40 percent of its domestic goods by way of its coastal seas, whereas in the U.S. the lower 48 states move only about 1 or 2 percent of domestic cargo by ship.

Economic and environmental cards are also played by proponents to bolster the benefits of the short sea option.

But the report says that up to this point, “The discussion of the environmental benefits from short sea shipping has been limited.”

“Short sea shipping has the potential to be greener than other types of freight transport. However, major threats related to expanded operations—such as air pollution, ocean noise, and strikes of marine mammals—have yet to be thoroughly addressed; until they are, claims about its environmental superiority will ring hollow,” says John Kaltenstein of Friends of the Earth, who wrote the report.

More action is needed to protect marine life and reduce air pollution from expanded short sea operations, FOE says.

For the Bay Area proposal, the report recommends that the tugs used to move container barges should have environmentally-advanced features, including batteries and low-polluting engines. Other recommendations from FOE include: optimization of engines to reduce underwater noise; ship strike safeguards such as dynamic management areas, routing measures and “Areas to be Avoided;” rigorous environmental assessments in conjunction with the EPA and transparent compliance among all of the port areas involved.

“We have found that adopting the most environmentally advanced technologies is crucial to minimizing the negative impacts of short sea shipping,” Kaltenstein said. “Industry leaders should adopt best practices and use low-emissions fuel, plug into electric shore power at berth, conduct regular equipment maintenance, and slow ship speeds. Where industry leaders fail to act, policymakers should step in to protect the public.”

So short sea is not quite the slam-dunk that some contend; and it may not be the environmental panacea either. Unfortunately ships, especially the types of vessels involved in short-sea operations, are among transportation’s heaviest polluters.


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