Captain’s Corner – Port Capacity

As we worked our way around Capitol Hill during our annual advocacy trip to Washington D.C. with the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region, I realized that advocacy is tricky. We continuously need government support not only for our channel, but also for the roads, rails, and pipes delivering and taking away our cargo. Our focus is on building for the future by obtaining backing for initiatives that will support this area for many years to come.

However, sometimes that message gets sideways because of the large amount of information at our disposal and that has led some to say that our port has reached capacity. The port of Houston is NOT constrained; neither is it at capacity nor is it in danger of becoming so. What we are is a fast-paced, vital artery pumping billions of dollars into the national economy. Our pitch to congressional leaders (especially those outside Texas) centers on an enormously significant fact: the 274 facilities in the port region make us one of the largest manufacturing centers in the U.S, and we are worth investing in. The port region is not without challenges, but it is a place where people know how to get things done safely and efficiently.
Consider these fundamental facts when thinking of capacity:
• On an average day, the Houston Pilots move 52 ships; however, recently they have moved 92 ships in one day. This tells me that we currently have the pilots, tugs, line handling, dock availability, etc., to handle more vessel traffic. That is the bench strength we currently have—clearly, there is capacity we can build on top of this number.
• The number of deep draft vessel movements is growing at a consistent 1% and has been over the past several years. Industry is investing in the port region and the dock permit requests support our forecast for continued vessel movement growth of 1-2% going forward.
• The Port of Houston is deep and wide compared to other regional ports and can handle daily two-way traffic.
• The port region is well served by a U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service which advises safe movements within the Houston-Galveston area. This provides vessel operators with enhanced situational information for a very low vessel incident rate that continues to trend lower.
So, what is the capacity of the port? I’m not sure. I could tell you the capacity of the Panama Canal when I worked there because it had a limiting factor—how fast the locks filled/drained. But the Houston Ship Channel doesn’t have a similar limiting factor. Yes, channel depth can be limiting, ergo, the need to always be looking for congressional support of dredging, but it doesn’t define maximum capacity. I also hear people comment on how much (or little) distance is between transiting vessels, aka vessel separation. While I can tell you that that is not a limiting factor and vessel separation is best left to the pilots. As professional mariners, they have a lot to consider in ensuring our vessels transit safely.
So, is this a port paradise for vessel movements? —not hardly, it is busy and needs our constant attention. Our focus at the Port Bureau is not on determining the capacity of the ship channel, but on how we move the traffic we have at peak efficiency. This brings me to chemical ship movements. Being the second largest petrochemical complex in the world does bring a lot of chemical tankers into our port. At the moment, this presents a unique scheduling issue for us. Patrick Seeba discussed the topic in detail in our October 2016 magazine, so I will just sum up the issue. Because chemical tankers carry multiple cargoes destined for multiple terminals, they are required by the charter parties to give blanket Notice of Readiness (NORs) at all terminals appointed to receive their cargo. So, seven terminals may be preparing for ship A (a process requiring up to 12 hours), only to discover that ship A is docking elsewhere. Worse yet, the other six terminals have been telling other chemical tankers that they are preparing for ship A, resulting in additional loss of efficiency. Captain Tim Downs with Shell heads up our traffic efficiency subcommittee working on this issue, and as more industry partners engage to resolve the dilemma, the closer we are to making chemical ship movements more efficient and predictable.
Coming full circle, our congressional leaders get that our ports are important and continued support is needed for the various infrastructures vital to moving cargo. The other good news is we have plenty of capacity in the port, but sustainable growth for the next generation also depends on us, collectively, ensuring that these assets operate efficiently. For now, that keeps our focus on chemical ship scheduling.

  • Date May 9, 2017
  • Tags May 2017