Slow Ride, Part 2 - Crude Oil and NGL Export Challenges at the Port of Houston

The Houston Ship Channel (HSC) is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the U.S. Each year, thousands of vessels utilize the waterway, importing and exporting goods ranging from pharmaceutical products to what the Census Bureau classifies as “Leather Art; Saddlery Etc.; Handbags Etc.; Gut Art”. More to the point of today’s blog: over 10 million tons of energy products move through the channel each month. But as ships grow ever larger, the ports and canals that service them must also adapt to be able to handle their increased dimensions. The Houston Ship Channel now finds itself in a situation where it must adapt to meet increasing market demands. Today, we continue our series on the issues facing some Texas ports and the measures being taken to help alleviate them.

As we noted in Part 1 of this series, the total number of ship movements at HSC eclipsed 19,000 in 2018. Despite the heavy traffic, the Port of Houston boasts about a 98% open rate. But vessel movements along the channel in 2019 have faced significant disruptions for a non-trivial number of days — first from the intense fog that descended in early February and then from the thick, black smoke rising from the fire at International Terminal Co.’s (ITC) petrochemical complex at Deer Park in late March.

The stacked columns in Figure 1 show the number of tankers visiting the HSC each week in 2019, carrying chemical/products (green segments), crude oil (black segments) and LPG (blue segments). As seen in the stacked column marked by the gray text box, the number of tankers trafficking the ship channel dipped in the first week of February due to particularly soupy fog. The orange text box to the right marks the even larger impact of the ITC fire and subsequent shutdown of a portion of the channel, as tanker traffic saw a relatively steeper decline at that time.

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