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Evaluating Seaport Efficiency in the United States: New research shows a critical data gap

By Holly Rindge, Communications Manager

September 23, 2015. 


Since the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970, the United States has enforced air quality regulatory standards in each state. These standards require emission limits on five air quality indicators, called ‘criteria air pollutants’, used by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  These are: ground-level ozone; particulate matter; carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxides; and lead.

In a new study, USC Sea Grant’s extension director Dr. James Fawcett, and visiting scholar Dr. Hyo-Won Kang, examined the 22 largest seaports in the U.S. to determine if federal air quality rules have resulted in uniform air quality among these seaports. The researchers also evaluated operational efficiency, i.e. how many tons of cargo move through each port annually, and then ranked each port on the combined environmental and operational criteria. 

“This research gives us a view into which ports are doing well at managing the balance between the economy and the environment.” Fawcett said.

Left: About 45% of marine freight enters the U.S. through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Right: Shipping containers await transportation in Korea.


Drs. Fawcett and Kang used an evaluation method called “data envelopment analysis” using emissions data published by the EPA and cargo throughput data from the American Association of Port Authorities. They expected the most sophisticated ports would rank the most efficient.  What they discovered, however, was that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are not collected uniformly among U.S. seaports or their home cities.  The ports that ranked most efficient using this evaluation method did not include CO2 emissions. 

“Carbon dioxide is an important indicator of environmental health,” said Fawcett. “This model revealed a problem in how we collect data.” 

The Clean Air Act does not require CO2 levels to be monitored and therefore data is not collected in a standardized way. This data gap is unique to the U.S. and distorts the overall environmental efficiency of U.S. seaports. It also makes it difficult to compare the efficiency of ports within the U.S. and to compare U.S. ports with ports in other nations. 

“Seaport operations generate impacts both locally and globally,” Fawcett said. “Management decisions are more challenging without the full picture of environmental health.” 

Dr. Fawcett’s long-standing relationships with industry and academic professionals in the U.S. and Asia provide a strong platform to share these results. This research was recently presented at an international conference hosted by the Asian Logistics Round Table in Taiwan.  The conference, Global Integration of Economics and Connectivity Development, drew port and shipping industry professionals and academics from 18 countries. 

    Dr. Kang (left) and Dr. Fawcett (right) present their research at the Global Integration of Economics and Connectivity Development conference in Taiwan.

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