The Port of Tacoma keeps us moving

Our Port represents us around the world. It keeps our local economy in motion and it defines us like nothing else 

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

To put it mildly, I am a huge advocate of the Port of Tacoma.

Few, if any, entities are more intimately tied to the past, the future and present identity, character and, of course, economy of our region – and by region I mean Tacoma, Seattle, Pierce County, Washington state, and far, far beyond.

Tacoma’s linkages to Asia – especially Japan and China – have been long, many and deep.

Long before Washington was a state, we were a center for trade.

The Port of Tacoma, while out of sight for most of us (except for the cranes) has more than 2,700 acres of real estate property across Pierce County on which both marine cargo and other industrial tenants operate. In Pierce County this is mostly split between the visible port facility on Commencement Bay and the more industrial Rail and trucking based complex at Frederickson.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) oversees the marine cargo operations at both the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, and its economic impacts are extensive throughout Washington state.

NWSA, by the numbers, is the fourth largest port in North America.

This is the Port of Tacoma at the end of May, 2019. Five or ten years from now, will it be greener, more productive, a source of community pride or a toxic shame.  Photo: Morf Morford

This is the Port of Tacoma at the end of May, 2019. Five or ten years from now, will it be greener, more productive, a source of community pride or a toxic shame. Photo: Morf Morford

In terms of jobs and economic contribution, here are some basic data points;

Total NWSA jobs 58,400

Direct jobs 20,100

Indirect jobs 14,700

Induced jobs 23,600

Total NWSA business output $12.39 billion

Direct business output $5.86 billion

Total NWSA labor income $4.02 billion

Direct labor income $1.9 billion

You can see more details on the full economic reach and impact of the NWSA at nw.sa.com/economic-impact.

Tacoma’s port is known as NWSA’s “South Harbor”.  For most of us, Tacoma’s port involvement has the most direct impact on how we think about the influence and opportunities of being a port city.

NWSA South Harbor Marine Cargo

The Port of Tacoma’s marine cargo operations contribute 36,900 jobs and more than $2.5 billion in labor income across the Washington state economy.

Total jobs 36,900

Direct jobs 12,950

Total business output $7.78 billion

Direct business output $852 million

Total labor income $2.51 billion

Direct labor income $114 million

Total Tacoma Harbor Economic Impacts (NWSA South Harbor + Port of Tacoma Non-Marine operations)

Total jobs 42,100

Direct jobs 14,450

Total business output $9.33 billion

Direct business output $4.55 billion

Total labor income $2.84 billion

Direct labor income $1.31 billion

The American Association of Port Authorities estimates that for every $1 billion in exports shipped through U.S. seaports 15,000 jobs are created.

You might not think of produce as a huge export item, but it is.

Cherries are a good example. The Northwest cherry harvest creates an estimated 19,000 jobs and $540 million in economic impact. About 30 percent of this crop is exported, a majority shipped by air through Sea-Tac. China is the top export market for Washington cherries, buying 2.9 million cases valued at $127 million each year. In other words, we are connected, in ways profitable and positive through a web of importing and exporting – and have been for over one hundred years – and will be for years, decades if not centuries to come.

The decisions and policies we set in place will have repercussions many years from now and many thousands of miles from here.

My bias is that I want to see Tacoma – and Tacoma’s Port succeed – but not only succeed. I want Tacoma to be a place that makes good decisions and is willing to change its mind – and its course – when a decision might, thanks to new information or a shift in circumstances might require reconsideration.

A port, in fact, any community, is about far more than jobs and dollars. Our history, our character, our identity is what we reach for, who we are and what we leave behind.

Our selling price is not who we are.

Mt Rainier reminds us of what we have - and what is at stake. Photo: Morf Morford

Mt Rainier reminds us of what we have – and what is at stake. Photo: Morf Morford

I could not count the number of people I have known from this area who have made their lives and careers across the country, or even around the world and wanted nothing more than to come back here to live.

We have something unique and special here – something beyond measuring. And we want to protect and keep it.

We want our children – and their children – to have what we have been able to have – and to thank us for how we have kept it for them.

Our policies and values reflect who we are – but more importantly, they reflect how much, or even if, we respect and value the future.

Tacoma’s Port has been the source of influence and prosperity for our region for over one hundred years, and it is in everyone’s interest to keep it healthy, innovative with one eye on its (literal) anchor in the past, and one eye on the future.

This why the Port’s advocacy of the proposed LNG facility concerns me.

The selling points in favor of the LNG plant are essentially two; it burns cleaner than the currently used bunker fuel (1*) and it is a “transitional fuel” – one which allows us a few more years until a more sustainable and cleaner fuel is developed.

To put it simply, bunker fuel is a by-product of gas and oil refining. It’s cheap and plentiful. And dirty.

It can be (and has been) made cleaner, but the process certainly won’t make it cheaper.

Even though it is not “clean burning,” I’m glad to see it used, at least for the time being. It is a filthy fuel and we will all be glad to see its use decline. I’m not sure where it would go if it was not used as fuel.

Getting away from fossil fuels entirely is the only complete answer.

Natural gas burns cleaner, but the process of drilling, processing and transporting is extremely toxic and polluting. (2*)

To say that natural gas is more environmentally friendly because it burns cleaner is disingenuous at best. The whole life-cycle, from oil well to final consumption, is fraught with leaks, spillage and opportunities for sabotage or terrorism.

I was told by the someone from The Port that the eight million gallon LNG tank would not be a hazard if it was broken by an earthquake or other natural catastrophe because the gas would “dissipate harmlessly”.  (3*)

Oddly enough, as I was researching this topic, I was doing some gardening around my house and as I got close to my natural gas meter, I smelled the unmistakable natural gas smell and called the phone number on my meter.

A repair team arrived in about twenty minutes. Their detector kit confirmed a gas leak. They immediately dug up the line and replaced the meter.

They did not operate under the assumption that the gas would “dissipate harmlessly”.

In fact they knew that a residential gas line leak is an extreme hazard – as would anyone who has followed the news lately. (4*)

Natural gas technically may not be explosive, but it is certainly extremely flammable.

They also told me that my natural gas pipelines, and most lines all across Tacoma are about fifty years old. And that ALL of our natural gas comes from Canada.

As to LNG as a “transitional fuel” I have to wonder what they mean. Transitional literally means temporary. Why would anyone, shipping lines, cruise ship companies or customers of any kind invest in a “temporary” fuel?

Would you invest in a “temporary” technology? Know anyone still using or interested in buying a Blackberry? Or a Windows phone?

LNG is often introduced as a fuel of the future. This is very odd since the world’s first LNG plant was built in West Virginia in 1912 (https://lngfacts.org/about-lng/history-of-lng/).

LNG is a continuation of our dependence on fossil fuels at a time when science, popular sentiment and emerging technologies show far cleaner, more efficient and safer sources of energy and production.

I simply fail to see its appeal.

My simple request of those promoting any policy especially those that are inherently dangerous; be honest, learn from the past, but don’t be stuck in it, and consider how the future will look back on us.

 

(1*)    What exactly, is bunker fuel? Here’s a little summary – http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/What+bunker+fuel/10958350/story.html

 

(2*)    For more on natural gas – where it comes form and how it is processed – look here  https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=natural_gas_home. Nationwide virtually all of our natural gas comes from either shale or fracking. Some background can be found here – https://canada.chevron.com/our-businesses/kaybob-duvernay-program/natural-gas-from-shale or here https://geology.com/articles/marcellus-shale.shtml or here https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2015/aug/03/canadas-tar-sands-landscape-from-the-air-in-pictures.

(3*)    LNG stands for Liquified Natural Gas. Natural gas is reduced to a compressed, liquid form at minus 260 degrees F. It must be kept at that temperature as it is shipped or stored.

(4*)    https://www.necn.com/news/new-england/Communities-Impacted-by-Gas-Explosions-Fires-Reach-Settlement-With-Columbia-Gas-509541771.html or https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/gas-explosion-san-francisco-shoots-fire-burns-multiple-buildings-n968636 and many more