Mario Cordero was an attorney in Long Beach, defending industries and municipalities in workers’ compensation cases when he went to lunch with a local elected official. This was in the early 2000s when environmental issues were hot topics in a city that, by population, ranks second in Los Angeles County, seventh in California and 39th in the nation.
“He asked me if I’d be interested in being appointed to the harbor commission,” recalls Cordero of his lunch partner, who was referring to the City of Long Beach’s port authority. “I said of course I would. When you are talking about the port authority, that’s the pinnacle of civic involvement.”
But Cordero could not help but wonder … why him?
“At the time, port authority appointees had backgrounds either politically or as a developer or financier or someone in that circle, or as a community or environmental advocate who is a strong fundraiser,” he says. “I didn’t come under any of those classifications. So I asked, ‘Would the mayor consider me when I don’t have the history of those people who have been propelled to the port authority before?’ He said the mayor was looking for a different mindset, someone who was more sensitive to the concerns of the community and the environmental agenda.”
Cordero accepted the appointment and was sworn onto the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners in July 2003, going on to serve as vice president and president during his eight-year stint. The Los Angeles native is now beginning what will this year be his 17th year as a maritime leader, not only locally and nationally but internationally, as he resigned from the harbor commission in 2011 to join the Federal Maritime Commission, the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating the nation’s international ocean transportation for the benefit of exporters, importers and the American consumer and fostering a fair, efficient and reliable international ocean transportation system, while protecting the public from unfair and deceptive practices.
Cordero, who became executive director of the Port of Long Beach in May 2017, now leads a Harbor Department staff of more than 500 and oversees a budget that was $982 million for the 2019 fiscal year.
The crowning jewel of his career (so far) is arguably the nationally recognized, globally influential Green Port Policy, which outlines a sustainable ethic for all port operations, mandating that trade growth run parallel with environmental stewardship. Cordero began working on the initiative in late 2004, while still on the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners. “We rolled it out,” he says, “and the rest is history.”
Cordero, who was appointed vice-chairman of the Board for the American Association of Port Authorities in October 2018, outlined his port’s strong 2019—despite a dip in exports due to the U.S.-China trade war—and the progress of sustainability efforts during his Jan. 23 State of the Port address at the Long Beach Convention Center. Last year, the Port of Long Beach moved 8.1 million shipping containers or its highest total ever. An $870 million project in the pipeline to improve the port’s rail yard will have more containers hauled by trains instead of trucks, he noted. “Rail is a big part of our green future,” Cordero told the audience. “For the American exporter, my message to you is this: Our rail will move your cargo faster and more efficiently, and we are on track to make it even better for you in the years ahead.”
He also highlighted the Clean Air Action Plan that the ports of Long Beach and neighboring Los Angeles, which together form the largest port complex in the nation, implemented in 2017. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. “We all know climate change is a major global effort, and a global threat,” Cordero told the crowd. “We need to transition to sustainable low-carbon, and the Port of Long Beach will do its part. Our challenge is not just to reduce carbon emissions. It’s to eliminate them altogether. … Yes, we face great challenges, but this port of the future is meeting that challenge. With our many projects, we’re planting seeds so this region continues to thrive.”
Over the phone a week after his State of the Port address, Cordero credited his time on the Harbor Commission with helping to bring about his port’s revolutionary change. “That was the game-changer with me to be part of the port authority,” he says. “I started during a time when there was a real contentious relationship with environmental groups and neighborhood groups who questioned the impacts of having such a great port. Their primary concerns were the harmful emissions that came from those operations and congestion on the highways, streets and so forth. As a result, then-mayor Beverly O’Neill appointed me to the Harbor Commission, and one of my mandates was to bring different thinking to the commission, one that is more sensitive to the concerns of the neighborhood and communities, especially when it came to the environmental issues coming before us.”
Cordero helped usher in the Green Port Policy that the port formalized in January 2005, sealing his reputation as a leader who can bring together different stakeholders or constituencies when it came to economic and environmental sustainability. “Our motto was Grow Green,” he notes. “Back then, in 2004-’05, a lot of naysayers in the industry felt that if you try to do both, it will negatively impact business operations. Looking back, that of course, as I thought then, was not to be the case.” The League of California Cities bestowed Cordero an environmental award in 2007 (the same year the Mexican-American Bar Association named him Attorney of the Year). And still, after two decades of operating under the Green Port Policy, the Port of Long Beach ranks second in the U.S. when it comes to container moves. (The Port of Los Angeles is No. 1.) “It’s not only Grow Green, but we are also a growth leader,” Cordero says. “We eventually laid out a model for ports around the world.”
Some of those ports in the U.S. would not mind cutting into Long Beach’s trade action. “We recognize that we have to have a competitive edge in terms of competing with other gateways in the U.S. lobbying for a piece of the Asian-Transpacific cargo moves,” concedes Cordero, who during his early days in the industry became “intrigued” by “the whole issue of commerce and international trade.” He plunged into examining globalization, especially as it related to economic partnerships with Asian countries. His self-education, coupled with the port’s economic and environmental successes, led to President Barack Obama appointing Cordero to the Federal Maritime Commission, which he chaired from April 2013 to January 2017.
The FMC experience “gave me context into the high levels of Washington, D.C.,” he says. “That leadership really put the Port of Long Beach on the national front. I am very proud of that history.” It was forged by Cordero’s ability to get local residents, environmentalists, union workers, terminal operators, cargo owners, international shipping companies, transportation entities and government regulators to all buy in to the port’s vision when it came to what had previously been viewed as polar opposites: trade growth and environmental sustainability. “We had to educate the community about the importance of international trade, not only as a job producer, but every household is a beneficiary of international trade,” Cordero says. “And number two, the Port of Long Beach was serious about exploring ways we can further sustainable development.”
He points with pride to “a tremendous monetary investment” the port has made to mitigate air and water pollution. “We moved forward to introduce and put in place shore power, which is also known as cold ironing,” he says. “An investment in excess of $180 million resulted in international vessels coming to port and hooking up to the electrical infrastructure as opposed to burning bunker fuel, or what they call hoteling. The way it [previously] looked at the port was that the vessels were emitting black smoke while they were here. Not much more changed dynamically until, on the international front and the state level, the implementation of standards requiring environmentally friendly fuels and the getting away from the common use of bunker fuel, which was the worst kind to use as far as the diesel infrastructure.”
Cordero is pleased with where the port is in terms of achieving the goals of the Green Port Policy. Referring to the marketing spin that makes a supposedly green entity sound more focused on sustainability than it really is, Cordero conceded, “Many thought in the environmental community, and I don’t blame them, that we were just greenwashing here. Obviously, we did more than greenwashing. … Mitigating harmful emissions—we’ve done that. In 10 years we have reduced particulate matter 88 percent, noxious emissions 57 percent, and we’ve reduced sock emissions at a level of 97 percent. Those are astounding numbers in terms of what we did.”
In the same breath, he acknowledges the port must do more as it tries to meet the bold goals of zero emissions in cargo handling by 2030 and zero emissions from trucks by 2035. “There are 18,300 trucks registered at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. There can be anywhere from 14 to 16 truck moves a day. Our goal is to not be satisfied in reducing emissions and diesel emissions until we get to zero, so by 2035 trucks will be running on electric batteries or fuel-cell technology.”
That is why Cordero is not ready to pop the cork on the bubbly just yet. “I am satisfied at this point in terms of what this port and this city have been able to do, but ultimately we must meet our current quest of going zero emissions,” he says. “That is something we will celebrate in the future.”
It’s all pretty heady stuff when you consider Cordero “was not even thinking about being on the Harbor Commission until I had that lunch. … I love to speak to students assessing what careers they are looking at. Number one, I tell them to give 110 percent at the job they are doing. Second, I say you never know what door is going to open.”