Captain’s Corner – Santa’s Workshop

As we round the corner to Christmas, I’m reminded of my time in Duluth, Minnesota, possibly because our spring-like weather so far this winter has been the exact opposite of what I experienced there.
The Port of Duluth-Superior is a small port at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior. It completely freezes in and closes down for two or three months during the winter. Right around this time, the temperature starts falling consistently below freezing. By the end of January, up to 15 feet of ice will be layered on the docks. In Texas summers, a common way to demonstrate the extreme heat is to attempt to fry an egg on the hood of a car. Well, in Duluth, we enjoyed such winter pastimes as pouring out a cup of hot coffee and watching it freeze before it hit the ground.

Despite having only about 20 docks, the port often lands in the top 20 U.S. ports by tonnage due to the high volume of bulk commodities. Its primary cargoes are exports of iron ore, coal, and grain exports and imports of limestone and energy-related heavy equipment. Roughly 90% of the 1,000 annual vessel visits come from lakers, bulk carriers that transport cargo between the ports on the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway. Duluth-Superior has strategic rail and highway connections that make it an excellent conveyor belt to move commodities into or out of America’s heartland.

Other than Houston having never frozen over, this is a key difference between our port and Duluth. Houston has ample conveyor belt capacity thanks to its extensive rail, road, and pipeline connections, and it has robust storage capacity for bulk, break bulk, liquid bulk and containers. However, what makes Houston unique is that it is not just a waypoint for commodities moving from one place to another – it’s also a manufacturing center.

In the Port of Houston region, there are about 275 facilities owned by 190 companies that make up the maritime and manufacturing network. Of these facilities, only about half have access to the waterways, while the rest are close by but landlocked. Some of these are indeed waypoints for raw or finished goods – consumer goods, food products, automobiles, construction materials, and more – that will make it to their final destinations outside of the port region with little to no alterations.

Other facilities – the manufacturing facilities – improve the goods entering our port region. The current shining stars for Houston are the chemical manufacturers producing ethylene. With low-cost natural gas feedstock from domestic shale production, chemical manufacturers have enjoyed a renaissance along the ship channel. Not only have companies invested tens of billions of dollars in and around the port, but these ventures also bring well-paying white collar and skilled jobs to our region.

I speak at community events and conferences a few times per month, and one of my purposes is to illustrate to the public how valuable our port region is to our economy. We are not just a conveyor belt port, but a huge manufacturing center that uses our port to compete in global markets. You’re welcome to join me in spreading the message by explaining this to your extended family over eggnog, and remind them that there’s a good chance the plastics that make up the toys and cell phone cases from Santa’s workshop started out in the port of Houston.

By the way, I did love the winters in Duluth. Christmas always feels like Christmas when your house is blanketed with snow.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and prosperous New Year,

  • Date December 15, 2016
  • Tags December 2016