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The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has more than struck a nerve with its recent report that humans are to blame for the Earth heading for environmental disaster.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the report was “a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening.” 

He further stated that, “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet.” 

“Climate change is already affecting every region on Earth, in multiple ways. The changes we experience will increase with additional warming,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Panmao Zhai.

The report also shows that human actions still have the potential to determine the future course of climate. The evidence is clear that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main driver of climate change, even as other greenhouse gases and air pollutants also affect the climate.

“Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid and sustained reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and reaching net zero CO2 emissions,” said Zhia, in his comments when the report was released. “Limiting other greenhouse gases and air pollutants, especially methane, could have benefits for health and the climate.”

Aspects of the marine industry have been targeted in the past as culprits in the spread of CO2 emissions and other pollutants. In the past four or five years, ports throughout North America have been implementing programs to reduce emissions, through the use of electric terminal equipment, shore power and LNG facilities. Every bit helps. 

The Port of Houston, however, has elevated its game in the protection of the environment. Striving to do its part on climate change, Port Houston has been doing its share and more for nearly 20 years, long before climate change became the hot topic it is today.

On its website, Port Houston is described as a 25-mile-long complex of nearly 200 private and public industrial terminals along the 52-mile-long Houston Ship Channel. The eight public terminals are owned, operated, managed or leased by the Port of Houston Authority and include general cargo terminals and container terminals.

Each year, more than 247 million tons of cargo move through the greater Port of Houston, carried by more than 8,200 vessels and 215,000 barges. In 2019, the port achieved the No. 1 ranking in total waterborne tonnage in the U.S. and still ranks first in the U.S. in foreign waterborne tonnage. Port Houston is also home to a multi-billion petrochemical complex, the largest in the nation and second-largest in the world.

In 2002, the Port of Houston Authority became the first such entity in the U.S. to achieve an ISO 14001 certification for its environmental management system, which was an indication of the seriousness of its environmental efforts. 

So, what was the determination behind the environmental drive in the early 2000s?

“I think the port always had a view that if we don’t have a healthy environment, it is hard to have a healthy economy,” says Rich Byrnes, Port Houston’s chief port infrastructure officer, “and the mission of ports is to facilitate trade and facilitate commerce.”

Houston port officials’ views on a healthy environment and economy roll into their top concern over the Texas region’s quality of life, according to Byrnes, who also cautioned there is a public perception that the port authority has jurisdiction over more facilities than it actually does.

“We operate the public docks, which are primarily container terminals and general cargo terminals,” Byrnes clarified. The liquid bulk activities and 200 other docks and wharves are privately owned and operated by a few dozen major companies that also own the refineries and petrochemical complex.

“That puts us in an interesting situation because the public looks to the port, looks to us as representative of the Greater Port of Houston where 70% of the ships that come in are going to those private bulk facilities,” Byrnes says. “So, we realize we can’t do things alone.”

The chief infrastructure officer was quick to note that Port Houston is not going to solve climate change and the major challenges that have been highlighted in the UN report as those are global issues, but his team we will do what they can locally.

“We have neighbors and we have communities who are concerned about every dock and wharf that gets built and about noise, the light, the emissions that happen up and down the ship channel and we hear it all,” he says. “Whether or not we are responsible for it or not, we hear it because we have public port commission meetings and that’s a forum for the public to come in and say these are the things that are going right and wrong in the area. 

“Many times, it is not our jurisdiction, it may be the EPA or the Texas Commission on Environment Quality, but we hear it all. Our stance on the environment, including being the first port ISO Certified back in 2002, was all motivated because we are trying to be responsive to the port stakeholders who live and breathe around the port. I don’t know if the awareness of climate change back in the early 2000s was what it is today, so I won’t say those changes were motivated by climate change. They were motivated by a port responding to local stakeholders.”

It is part of the port’s mandate to work in partnership with the private companies along the ship channel as well as various agencies to develop programs to deal with climate change and unwanted pollutants, according to Byrnes.

Early this year, the port authority published an environmental leadership strategy with stated goals on what it wants to achieve in the near term and long term when it comes to clean air, water quality, storm water runoff and other ecological concerns.

“As part of that we are doing a whole bunch of things and the port has reduced its carbon footprint by 55% over the last four years,” Byrnes stated. “One of the big needle movers there was an electricity contract.” 

That’s a reference to the port having signed an electricity contract with Shell, which built a solar field in West Texas with the public grant.

“So, one thing we did,” Byrnes says, “we introduced electric vehicles to our fleet and those types of things.” 

Another partnership with the Texas Commission on Environment Quality, which was aimed at emissions reductions, resulted in a number of recommendations.

“One of the things that was implementable in the immediate term was to purchase an electric yard mule to move containers around the yards,” Byrnes recalled. “That technology we had tried about 10 years ago, but the technology at the time didn’t stand up to the workload pressures but we tried it again. It has been in our fleet for about six months now and we are seeing good performance, so we will probably continue to move in that direction.

Another port goal resulted in the launch of a “sustainability action team”—with an emphasis on “action,” according to Byrnes, who stressed that the authority wants the public to realize there are several initiatives in the works. One initiative involved invitations to about 140 different stakeholders for five, two-hour environmental workshops.

“We had about 80 participate from all walks of life—citizens, community and environmental advocacy groups but also the cargo shippers, beneficial cargo owners, the cargo carriers and industry partners,” said Byrnes. 

Through these workshops, there was a review of more than 100 sustainable projects at 70 ports around the world, which allowed Houston to match up its own projects with other global sustainability concepts.

“We took a sampling of that and said these are the types of things that can fit here in Houston,” Byrnes said. 

The authority spokesman said that during the workshops, “we asked a couple of simple questions. The first was what is important to the stakeholders and what can we do about it. The prime areas were clean energy, emissions reduction, community strengthening, circular economy and transparency. What we came up with was a list of 27 opportunities to either lead, partner or support different sustainability initiatives, and that lead, partner and support model was important because there are some things we can do inside of our own gates.”

Byrnes said the authority can introduce electric vehicles to its own facilities and reduce its own carbon footprint, but it can’t mandate billions of dollars to pipelines and others systems in the shipping channel because they belong to private industry.

“The things we can’t lead, we need to partner. So, we are having conversations with big oil companies and entrepreneurial startups around initiatives that would translate into the initial transition to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, for example, helping ships transition to LNG or other alternative fuels.” 

The goal would be for the partners to become carbon neutral through, for instance, proper sourcing and blending of the materials going into the feedstock.

As for the supporting concept, “There are of major initiatives going on right now,” Byrnes said. 

For instance, in June the Blue Sky Maritime Coalition, which Port Houston co-founded, was launched. It is a collection of about three dozen companies with a focus on de-carbonizing shipping. Byrnes said the port authority can support this initiative “by making sure our initiatives are aligned with those initiatives. We are also joining the international agencies’ hydrogen ports coalition, which is similarly about exchanging ideas and practices to transition to clean energy.

“The other thing we are doing is working with the Center for Houston’s Future around the hydrogen economy and its transition,” Byrnes continued. 

That work will deal with questions such as how to accelerate Houston as a hub, all the installed infrastructure that comes with technology as well as the jobs and skills that will be absolutely suited to introducing new forms of energy and energy management.

“If there is going to be a place to contribute to the implementation of hydrogen and ammonia, it will be a place like Houston,” Byrnes added.

In discussions on environmental issues and suggestions to reduce carbon emissions, the overall reaction from private entities has been positive, according to Byrnes.

“I think they enthusiastically joined in our sustainability workshops, and as we did some homework we didn’t have to look far to find their own sustainability reports and strategies,” he said, noting almost every company along the ship channel has such goals, most of which are published. “So, we took a look at what they are doing and aligned to that. Some of these are ocean carriers, some who either own or charter ships; they are moving to cleaner fuels, driven a bit by IMO 2020, low Sulphur fuel requirements, also engine manufacturers or ship owners moving to alternative fuels, either LNG-powered ships and even ammonia powered ships.”

Byrnes added that companies whose business is clearly in the oil and gas sector “are not going away any time soon, but they are all focused on what the future holds and preparing themselves strategically, so they have sustainability initiatives.”

He went on to make this point about oil and gas companies: “When we talk about sustainability, climate change and impacts, there seems to be a lot of vilification of the fossil fuel industry. There is an angle here in Houston that some of the companies promote and that is it is in the national interest to export energy. And they like to make money doing it, but when we export natural gas to places like India and China, that is replacing wood, coal and dung in people’s homes and things like that. So, there is actually a net benefit to positioning fuel. While these companies all have sustainability goals, their business is doing some good things as well.”

While ports around North America and globally have over the past five years moved to more environmentally sustainable practices, it would appear Port Houston, with its many initiatives, investments and dialogue with numerous stakeholders, has carved itself a leadership role in the marine ports’ climate change battle.

“We like to say we are an environmental leader and what that means is being vigilant and always looking for what else we can do,” says Byrnes. “And that’s what we are focused on this year, 2021.”

As for the next five to 10 years for Port Houston with respect to the environment “we will keep doing what we are doing, but I think we are maybe at a tipping point. There have been a lot of ideas that have been talked about for the past several years, that are ideas whose time has come,” he says. 

One example is the transition to cleaner fuels for ships, with an ever-growing number of vessels transitioning to LNG and other alternatives.

 “As a port, we are going to try to facilitate the acceleration of this energy adaption so we can get to a lower emission transportation industry in this area,” said Byrnes, adding there is a lot of “pioneering work ongoing.”