Captain’s Corner

Captain Diehl Goes to Washington

During the first week of April, I joined the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region on their annual advocacy trip to DC, along with several members of our board of directors. This advocacy trip is a great example of the local stakeholders – many of whom are competitors – working together to address the common interests of the Houston port region. We had over 30 appointments scheduled with congressional staffs and agency leaders.

Participants in the 2019 Federal Advocacy Group with Economic Alliance Houston Port Region.

While there are several topics up for discussion from the advocacy team as a whole, my focus was on maintaining and improving our ship channel. Our dredging committee and board of directors asked us to write a white paper on three main points: ensuring two-way transits continue the Houston Ship Channel, addressing permitting delays, and investing in the resiliency of the Houston Ship Channel.

The most pressing concern is ensuring that two-way transits in the Houston Ship Channel now and into the future is necessary for ongoing safety and economic growth. Ships transiting the Houston Ship Channel are increasing in size and cargo capacity. Growing exports of petrochemicals and petroleum products, including plastic resins, drive the need for increased numbers and size of tankers and container ships. If you missed Capt. Mark Mitchem’s talk at our March Commerce Club see the recap of his presentation in this edition under Commerce Club. He did an excellent job of describing how the larger vessels maneuver in our narrow channel, and the safety reasons for widening the ship channel.

The Army Corps mega study underway to evaluate expansion of the ship channel is coming to a bizarre result: a stretch of the ship channel going through the middle of Galveston Bay isn’t set to be widened all the way through the Bay as part of the federal project. For those of you who commute in Houston, think of how much time is lost when construction blocks half of the lanes on a freeway. Well, that is what the Army Corps study is essentially recommending for our future: one way traffic for the bigger ships. This is because, according to their modeling there is not enough economic benefit to justify widening the entire channel through the Bay.

Photo: CAPT Diehl and Robert Baker, ExxonMobil with
Congressman Randy Weber.

Industry leaders and Port Houston are pushing back against this result, and one of our goals in DC was to gain the support of our congressional leaders to help ensure that the final version of the report includes the only logical conclusion – widening the entire length of the Houston Ship Channel’s Galveston Bay reach.

We also wanted to draw attention to a problem that we thought was solved – delays in receiving dredging permits from the Army Corps. A few years ago this became a major issue, and we worked with our local congressional delegation to bring it to the attention of the Army Corps Headquarters that our local district needed to be properly staffed to handle the demand for permits in a high-growth region. Following that and implementation of a new process, companies saw improvement in the time it took to get their permits. However, in the past few months, the time to receive permits has spiked again, leaving several terminals draft restricted while they await overdue permits. For context, each foot of draft lost reduces an Aframax tanker’s capacity by 20,000 barrels, making these delays very costly.

The third topic we discussed with our congressional leaders is for them to support sensible, forward-looking infrastructure projects that can be implemented as part of our hurricane and flooding recovery plans. With thoughtful planning, projects funded to mitigate flooding could dovetail into channel resiliency, since the Houston Ship Channel is an extension of our natural bayous. For example, advanced maintenance dredging where Buffalo Bayou meets the Houston Ship Channel would capture much of the silt that runs into our channel following severe storms.

Our visits went well, and in the next month’s magazine, I will let you know how this trip turned out and my sense of what still needs to be done to address these challenges. Our joint effort as a port community is essential, and I appreciate everyone’s support in pushing on these issues together.

CAPT Bill Diehl, USCG (Ret.), P.E.
GHPB President

  • Date April 25, 2019
  • Tags 2019 March/April