Port Watch – What’s In, What’s Out

By Tom Marian, Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Change is afoot everywhere these days. Stocks are up, dollar is down; News is fake, HBO is fact; Cuba is out, Philippines is in; and Reince’s star has set while General Kelly’s is shining rather bright. So, it is the same for ports of the Lone Star state and many of the commodities that pass across their countless docks.

Overall, the first 6 months of 2017 eked out a slight combined vessel arrival gain for all Texas ports after the most recent 1.5% monthly uptick. Conversely, inland tow movements across the state’s major inland maritime thoroughfare trailed last year’s pace by over 1% – in spite of the most recent monthly climb of 4%.

June’s loss leader – percentage wise – was Corpus Christi with a nearly 16% fall; however, it still stands as the second-best performer on a year-to-date basis as it outpaces the first half of 2016 by over 7%. Undoubtedly, Corpus Christi’s 2017 arrival numbers are being buoyed by a steady stream of exports ranging from crude to super-cooled methane. Freeport is also experiencing a banner year with another shot in the arm resulting from 31% more vessels calls. This bounty added further to its 2017 performance. More impressively, Freeport’s 20% year-to-date bounce underscores how the port is benefiting from a surge of petrochemical exports which have been facilitated by an expanded and reinvigorated infrastructure. Much deeper to the south, Brownsville is also capitalizing on the world’s thirst for inexpensive BTUs or chemicals derived therefrom by posting a robust 55% monthly rise. Unfortunately, arrivals still lag 2016’s record performance by over 17%.

The port of Galveston also logged a monthly high, vessel-arrival wise, that resulted in a slight rise of 1.5%. The port is still attempting to regain its footing in a deepwater exploration market that leaves much to be desired. Nonetheless, vessel arrivals plying the port’s waters are a mere 2% off of last year’s pace. The nearby port of Texas City is also lagging behind its 2016 vessel arrival numbers by 4%; which crept up after the most recent 3% wane. Likewise, Sabine fell 3% for the month and continues to fall below 2016’s arrival tally by over 4%. Yet, another indicator of the rejuggling of the movement of crude barrels from domestic sources via pipeline into refineries to exports of crude from the more southern Texas ports.

On the export front, Houston remains well ahead of the composition in the field of petrochemicals. June’s vessel count was the 2nd highest for the year which translated into a 4.7% positive yield in terms of arrivals. Numbers-wise that only places the port less than one-half of one percent above the first six months of 2016; however, the raw tonnage and container numbers are far more impressive. When one dives into the various ship categories that comprise the population of vessels which transit to and from the Bayou City’s waterfront, there are some positive developments. General cargo is attempting to shake off its malaise with its best monthly count for the year. Granted, one month with a 18% increase does not make a year but given the multi-year softness in the general cargo arena this could be a sign that the bottom is being left behind. The bulker picture – to date – is even rosier with a 27% monthly higher count. Indeed, 2017 is shaping up to be a very productive year to the tune of 14%. From a-more-eggs-in-a-basket perspective, container ship arrivals fell 5% for the month. Yet, are up 1% for the year. More impressively, the flow of containers is at record levels with imports clearly outpacing exports. Driven, in no small part, by the scores of small business and hundreds of new houses that are sprouting up along ever-expanding transportation corridors. This is also reflected in the car carrier activity which has been surging as of late – a departure from a tepid national market.

The energy triad through the Port of Houston was a mixed bag. Tankers had their best monthly numbers for 2017 with a near 9% gain but last year’s arrival count still exceeds the current year by 9%. Conversely, LPG and Chemical arrivals are faring better this year by 3% and 14% respectively. The monthly numbers certainly did not buoy the year-to-date ones as LPG calls dwindled by nearly 5% and chemicals carriers notched down by 3%. Finally, ocean-going barges failed to emulate its inland tow cousin given that it posted its 3rd consecutive monthly percentage drop; the most recent one being 15%. Nonetheless, seagoing barge traffic is on track to record one of its best years if it continues to remain 32% ahead of the previous year.

Thus ends the first half of a somewhat tumultuous year with mostly positive numbers. It seems that the chaos that bombards us is mostly mindless chatter as the business of commerce fuels growth, garners employment and provides opportunity for those that are intent on focusing on the positive.

  • Date September 6, 2017
  • Tags Aug.-Sept. 2017