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How Western ports anchor U.S. supply chains

An aerial view of the Port of Long Beach, California, at dusk.

Posted on April 8, 2024

On March 26, a 95,000-ton containership named the Dali collided nose-first with the Port of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. The bridge folded within seconds, a testament to the massive power of a vessel laden with several thousand containers of cargo. Eight workers were on the bridge when it collapsed; two survived, two were found dead, and four others remain missing. In the weeks to come, the U.S. Coast Guard will dredge debris from the river, and inspectors will investigate the cause of the crash. Meanwhile, the rest of the country will grapple with our continued reliance on a frequently overlooked industry that carries up to 90% of global trade.

Here in the West, coastal cities host some of the world’s largest shipping terminals. From Alaska to Southern California, in Juneau, Seattle, Tacoma and Portland, Oakland, San Diego, Los Angeles and Long Beach, well-oiled networks of cranes, trucks and forklifts absorb millions of containers stuffed with goods from overseas. The West might feel far removed from South Africa or South Korea, but the region is intimately connected to the rest of the world by a series of maritime highways that crisscross the oceans. That means that many major events across the globe, whether a drought drying up the Panama Canal or militant attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, can affect the flow of goods in our regional economy.

To shed light on the interconnected nature of shipping, High Country News sat down with James Fawcett, an expert in marine transportation at the University of Southern California, who publishes a column on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and previously served for over a decade as a port manager for Los Angeles County. This conversation reflects his own views, rather than those of his departments at USC.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: What was your reaction to the events in Baltimore last week?  

James Fawcett: As somebody who deals with shipping all the time, these things make my blood run cold. I was a ship driver in the Navy, and I know what it feels like to be standing on the bridge, guiding a ship into or out of a seaport.

In the Port of LA and the Port of Long Beach, we occasionally have ships that lose power, lose steering. That’s not terribly unusual. What was unusual with this case was where it happened, that it happened right at the approach to an obviously vulnerable bridge.

HCN: What would you say to Westerners who might be concerned about similar accidents in their cities?

JF: There was an allision — which is what it’s called when a vessel strikes something solid — up in the San Francisco Bay a few years ago, where a tankship ran into the Bay Bridge. It caused about a million-and-a-half dollars-worth of damage to the fendering (the protective material surrounding a bridge’s piers), but it didn’t hurt the bridge.

If you get on an airplane and the airplane is getting ready to leave the gate, the pilots go through a whole long checklist. Even if they know it by heart, they do it. They call out everything and they double-check everything. That happens on ships, too. It’s just that ships are much bigger than airplanes, and things happen more slowly.

HCN: When something like this happens, it feels like a miracle that there’s all these other container ships going in and out of our ports so smoothly the rest of the time.

JF: That’s a really big point. All sorts of things that we rely on, that come into the United States from outside the U.S., come by ship.

HCN: What are the commodities coming by sea?   

JF: Everything. Virtually everything you can think of. One of the big examples is appliances that are made overseas, that are bulky. They’re not particularly valuable, but they’re big. Furniture that’s made overseas travels by ship. Stuff that’s not urgent travels by ship. Toys travel by ship. Raw materials, finished products. And intermediate goods that are moving from one port to another to get value added to them.

The rule of thumb is: If it’s big and it’s cheap, it’s going to come by ship. If it’s small and valuable or perishable, it’s going to come by air. Flowers come from the Netherlands to Denver, to LA, by air because they’re perishable. Computer chips travel by air, because they’re valuable and they don’t weigh anything.

They can actually come from anywhere. Obviously, a lot from China. A lot from Korea, Japan, Taiwan — and goods sometimes out of India are transshipped in Singapore.

About 40% of all the imported cargo into the U.S. comes through the Port of LA and the Port of Long Beach.

HCN: Where do these products go after they arrive in the West?

JF:  About 40% of all the imported cargo into the U.S. comes through the Port of LA and the Port of Long Beach. The reason is that there are superb rail links from LA-Long Beach through the Midwest to Chicago, so a lot of the traffic comes that way.

The standard way that we approach containerized cargo coming through LA-Long Beach is, if it’s going 500 miles or less — that would be Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, Las Vegas, the San Francisco Bay Area — the cargo often goes by truck. If it’s farther than that, generally it goes by train. And the two routes are Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Union Pacific goes to Chicago, and then the goods are re-sorted there.

HCN: We saw a remarkable rise in the volume of cargo coming to the U.S. by sea during the pandemic. Can you tell me a bit about how ports responded to that increase?

JF: We did have a stack-up of container ships off the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. But this is a fascinating situation: Former Coast Guard captains got together, and they pulled together the shipping community and the maritime labor community, and they said, “We track all these vessels anyway, why don’t we institute a system where we establish a calculated time of arrival at port?”

Before, you could not establish your priority for berth and longshore workers until you got to the sea buoy off LA-Long Beach. So everybody raced to the sea buoy. Now, once your vessel leaves Shanghai and is underway, then you report that to the Marine Exchange, and that establishes your position in line. So there’s no incentive to race now. And then the Marine Exchange calculates your time of arrival based on who else is in the queue, and you know where you are in the queue. It’s like having a ticket to a baseball game in advance (versus) waiting to buy your ticket at the door.

HCN: How about over the long term? How has the rise of global trade and U.S. imports placed more pressure on ports?

JF: The potential is just for congestion of all kinds. It’s road congestion, it’s rail congestion, and congestion offshore as well. The public-goods downside is that there’s more air pollution as a result, because virtually everything — the locomotives, the trucks and the ships — are all running on diesel engines.

One of the things that the Port of LA and the Port of Long Beach has done is developed a system for cleaning up the air emissions. Before, container ships would come into port, and they would continue to operate their auxiliary engines to provide electricity and power for pumps and all that, and there were a lot of diesel emissions from those vessels. So the two ports got together with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and developed this scheme so that when container ships come into port, they plug in to shore power, and they shut down their auxiliary engines. Power has still got to be generated, but it’s generated in a much more efficient way at a power plant rather than locally by diesel engines on these ships.

An aerial view of the Port of Long Beach, California, at dusk.

HCN: Considering the Dali, what can we learn about the collective impact of all these objects coming into the country?

JF: It’s just tragic that this happened. People think, “Well, the ships are going so slowly that couldn’t be that big a problem.” Well, yes, it is. Momentum is mass times velocity. And when you think that the Dali displaced somewhere around 90,000 tons at seven knots, which is about 10 miles an hour, you’ve got a tremendous amount of momentum there, because you’ve got all this weight, and it’s hard to stop that much weight.

HCN: What do you think is most important for Western residents to know about maritime supply chain operations?

JF: Well, I think more than anything, how reliant we are on the port system. It has taken decades and decades to work out a system where we do international trade.

There are probably a quarter of a million people on the West Coast alone that are dealing with this: The longshore workers, all the ancillary folks who directly support the shipping industry — it’s employees at the big ports. And you don’t hear about them. Everybody expects to go to Walmart, Home Depot, whatever, pick up whatever they need. The other part of it is that we and our trading partners are in this intense commercial relationship with one another. We can argue about a lot of things, but this is a complex relationship that has taken a long time to establish. And I think we need to recognize that we’re all part of it. The supply chain is invisible to most people, but for those of us who have something to do with it, who are studying the system itself rather than the products that move — it’s pretty amazing.


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