Port Watch – Good, Better, Best

Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Thanks to a solid December’s cumulative vessel count for Texas ports, 2017 was better than 2016’s by 0.6%. In some instances, several of the ports registered their best arrival count for the year. While, in others, the monthly vessel tallies were good enough to improve upon the previous year’s numbers. Unfortunately, for the majority, the last month of the year’s count was not good enough to out best the number of vessel arrivals in 2016. Regardless of the outcome for the various ports, every port posted a monthly gain as 2017 yielded to 2018.

Two ports in particular – Freeport and Sabine – ended the year on a particularly strong note with the best monthly arrival numbers for the year. Characterizing Freeport’s 2017 as a banner year may be an understatement. After several months of record activity, the port finished the year with a 16% better count than the previous year. This was the best of all the ports percentage-wise. Its 19% month-over-month increase was just 5 shy of reaching a triple-digit vessel count. Great things are in store for Freeport in the coming years. Sabine’s best of months was a welcome sight after a less-than-stellar 2016. The port saw a 3.6% monthly climb and ended the year in percentage terms better than all of her sister ports – save Freeport – with a 7% rise for the year.

Overall, things could have been better for the port of Brownsville in 2017 as it finished 15% below 2016’s arrival count despite a 19% monthly jump. The port is still regrouping as the price of oil stages a comeback. Corpus Christi ended the year with its 2nd highest vessel count placing the port squarely into positive territory after a tepid third quarter. The 6% monthly increase in the port’s vessel arrivals was also the 4th consecutive month without a decrease in arrivals. A 1% annual uptick may not be significant but Corpus Christi’s drive to consistently host 200 deep drafts a year may not be far off.

Meanwhile, further up the coast, Galveston’s final month of the final quarter was 4% higher than the previous month. In fact, Galveston fourth quarter arrival figures beat all other quarters; however, it was not enough to nudge 2017’s final tallies above that of 2016 as Galveston settled for a 0.7% year-over-year decline. On a more positive note, there are signs that $65/bbl oil is breathing some life into a moribund Gulf oil patch. From a consistency standpoint, Texas City has been predictably off 9 to 10 percent throughout the year. December’s 15% ascent was a welcome sight, but the port still lagged 2016’s arrival totals by 9.4%.

Houston Deepdraft Arrivals by Type

The port that built “H-Town” had a rather nice run as it closed out 2017. The nearly 2.5 million containers that were shipped to and from Port

Houston was a 13% higher count than 2016. Additionally, steel was up an impressive 66% signaling strong economic activity inland. General cargo activity, on the other hand, fell over 10% for the year. Nevertheless, December was a bright spot with a 6% monthly positive change. Bulkers suffered their worst month of the year. Fortunately, the 22% monthly plunge did not drag this category into negative territory as it hosted 3% more vessels for the year. On the energy side of the trade ledger, the results were mostly positive. Tankers had their best month of the year with the final month being 9% higher than the prior one. Yet, despite the ever greater amount of crude flowing out, rather than in, 2017 saw 7% fewer tankers than 2016. Chemical tanker arrivals fell nearly 7% for the month. Yet, this category experienced another bell weather year with a bounty that outpaced last year by 10.5%. Strong demand for the cargoes carried by these vessels will continue to drive the count ever higher over the next few years. LPG also had a very good year as its numbers were up nearly 4% for the year and over 8% last month. It, too, is benefiting from robust international demand due to its relatively low cost. Finally, ocean-going tows ended the year 12% ahead of last year. The same cannot be said of its inland cousin which is suffering through low rates and excess capacity. Hence, there were 4% fewer tows that transited through the system over the last year.

2017 may not have been the best year for the bulk of the Texas ports. Nonetheless, it was good enough to reflect that 2018 will be an even better one.

  • Date February 20, 2018
  • Tags February 2018