News & Updates: Port Bureau News: February 2020

Port Watch: America’s Levant

Monday, March 9, 2020  
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By Tom Marian,  Buffalo Marine Service, Inc.

Dating back to the Bronze age, the ports of the eastern Mediterranean dominated the geopolitical landscape as wealth flowed into Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. Trade brought prosperity; prosperity grew kingdoms; kingdoms fostered culture. Centuries later, the maritime centers of Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria were cosmopolitan beacons where a common language – Lingua Franca – facilitated trade, assimilation and the rise of a merchant class. There was no doubt as to why the known world viewed this crescent of coastline as Levant – “where the sun rises”.

While Texas’ coastline is not oriented to the east, its crescentic coast harbors three of the nation’s top six ports. Mind you, these economic dreadnoughts – comprising the ports of Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi – do not export figs, raisin and cotton which brought wealth into the Levantine ports of old; rather, they fill the tanks of outbound vessels with crude, chemicals and LPG. Consequently, not unlike the ports of Levant, they are “windows” of trade that stimulate the flow of wealth into the country.

The twenty-tens certainly reflected that throughout the Gulf’s Levant as the Shale Renaissance stimulated all things petrochemical. Now that the Twenties are upon us, is more of the same in store? For the most part, things appear to be headed in the right direction. This is particularly the case for Corpus Christi which has been on a tear over the past few months. The port was off just over 5% as compared against the previous month. Nonetheless, it’s ‘leapfrogged’ January 2019’s numbers by over 9%. Its energy exports continue to post record numbers from additional activity at terminals such as Cheniere and MODA Energy.

Brownsville’s start to the next decade was even more impressive with an eye-catching 39% monthly hike and a 19% higher arrival count compared to the previous January. Freeport’s 2020 debut was also quite extraordinary as it eclipsed the first month of the decade’s final year by a staggering 50%. Ironically, this was after the port slipped into the double-digit arrival count resulting in a 12.4% monthly lapse. The Port of Galveston was also off for the month by nearly 20% but kicked off 2020 over 2% higher than its first 31 days of 2019.

The Port of Texas City chalked up a positive start to the new year with 8% more arrivals over the past month and a nearly 6% improvement over January 2019’s arrival figures. Sabine could also brag about its month-over-month vessel tally since it was almost 6% above that of December’s. Unfortunately, it lags January 2019 by 13.7% – the biggest percentage wane of all Texas ports. Fog played a bit of a role in the lower numbers; but, the bulk of the cause was dampening demand for exports.

The nation’s number two port in terms of total tonnage was the sole Lone Star port to post a percentage deficit for the month and against last January’s count – 7.4% and 3.2% respectively. This, in turn, dragged the cumulative arrival counts for the state into the red for both the month and year-over-year; to the tune of 2.7% and 2.1% respectively. On the bright side, LPG continues to enjoy robust growth with 7.6% more arrivals over the course of the last month and a 9% rise compared to the beginning of 2019. There seems to be no end to the flow of containers as evidenced by a near 8% monthly waxing and this January outdistancing last January by 18.5%. There was also good news for bulkers and general cargo over the last month as both vessel types rallied by 16.7% and 6.3%; however, the first month of 2020 could not keep pace with 2019’s first month by 9.7% and 40% respectively.

Tankers, on the other hand, were weak across the board. The chemical tanker arrival count fell nearly 11% during the last month and is off by over 15% on a year-over-year basis. Petroleum tankers posted similar results as their brethren that call upon the port of Sabine with 13.2% fewer arrivals for the month and January-over-January. Things were not as bleak for ocean-going tow movements which generally transport bulk liquid products. While this category tapered off by nearly 8% for the month, it saw an uptick of 6% against January 2019’s arrival numbers. Inland tow movements, on the other hand, were slightly down with respect to the initial month of the previous year – just shy 1%; however, there was no change in the count from the final month of the year.

Overall, there were no drastic changes or worrying trends along the 21st century’s Levant coast with the arrival of the Twenties. As America’s Levantine cities harness more energy for export and attract ever more trade, an ever greater number of Americans will witness the rising of the sun across a bountiful Texas horizon.


About the Author

Tom Marian is the General Counsel of Buffalo Marine Service, Inc. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the Port Bureau Board of Directors.