Houston wrestles with containership limits as traffic grows

Houston
Courtesy Louis Vest
Two containerships pass in the Houston Ship Channel in 2006. The Panama Canal expansion completed in 2016 has allowed a new generation of larger boxships to reach southern and eastern U.S. ports, causing occasional traffic jams in petroleum-rich Houston.

The Texas energy industry is sparring with other vessel operators over use of the Houston Ship Channel, which has seen an increase in containership traffic that can slow tanker transits in the busy waterway.

The channel traditionally allowed for two-way traffic. But since the Panama Canal was widened, larger vessels now seek access to the Port of Houston’s container terminals, and the Houston Pilots Association mandates that ships exceeding 1,100 feet cannot be passed in the channel above Buoy 18.

Since August of last year, 14 big containerships have transited the channel, Port of Houston spokeswoman Lisa Ashley said in late May. The largest was the 1,105-foot Pusan C. in December. “We’re expecting another four through August,” she added. More than 200 private terminals and eight public terminals line the waterway.

According to the Houston Pilots, most of the 14 ships have been about 1,100 feet long, making them neo-Panamax.

Dredging and widening are needed to help accommodate the larger ships, but it’s expensive. Under current plans, the 52-mile federal channel would be widened from 530 feet to 700 feet in four to five years, according to the port. That would allow Houston to receive ships with greater TEU capacity.

On June 14, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation, SB 2223, that says the pilot commissioners’ board for Harris County, encompassing Houston, shall “adopt rules and issue orders to pilots or vessels when necessary to secure efficient pilot services, including minimizing the interference of two-way routes,” and shall generally restrict ships calling at the port to 1,100 feet, unless the board determines longer vessels can be piloted while maintaining two-way traffic. Movement of larger ships would require approval by 80 percent of Houston channel pilots and two public hearings.

The bill was opposed by Houston port commissioners. After it was signed into law, Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther said, “We are steadfast in our position that keeping the channel open for all vessel traffic is in the best interests of our state and nation.” The port is focused on getting federal authorization for construction to widen the ship channel, he said.

In early May, Texas legislators abandoned a plan under SB 2223 to limit calls by vessels exceeding 1,100 feet to one a week in the channel. Legislators then backed an amended version of the bill that was signed by Abbott.

The Coalition for a Fair and Open Port, which includes Enterprise Products Partners, Kinder Morgan, Targa Resources Corp. and other energy-related companies, strongly supports two-way traffic. The International Longshoremen’s Association, the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX), the Houston Customs Brokers & Freight Forwarders Association and others oppose length and arrival restrictions.

“USMX and its container vessel operators are absolutely opposed to restrictions limiting the entry of containerships of 1,100 feet and larger to one per week in the channel,” said David Adam, chairman and CEO of New Jersey-based USMX, in May. “That legislation isn’t about safety or efficiency. No study was done on the causes of delays in the channel, and there haven’t been any incidents involving large container vessels that would have prompted concerns.”

Adam said such a restriction favors gas and oil interests who don’t want to deal with inconvenient, short delays that they may encounter in a first-come, first-served system.

On April 8, Port of Houston Authority commissioners agreed to limit ships imposing one-way traffic in the channel to one per week. But that rule has been superseded by SB 2223.

Houston Pilots spokesman Henry de la Garza said a new rule was approved by pilots on April 10 affecting containerships. The rule reads: “Container vessels with an LOA or length overall of less than or equal to 1,110 feet and a beam less than or equal to 150 feet may meet other vessels with dimensions less than or equal to 601 feet by 106 feet and a draft of less than 35 feet.”

De la Garza declined to discuss container traffic beyond that and said inquiries should be directed to port officials and the Coalition for a Fair and Open Port.

As for dredging, the last full effort in the Houston Ship Channel, Project No. 10, was completed in 2005, Ashley said. The channel was deepened to 45 feet and widened to 530 feet.

“Currently, we’re pursuing Project No. 11, which would focus on widening the channel to 700 feet,” she said. “It’s my understanding that this would be a $1 billion project.” The port authority is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on authorizations and funding.

Container traffic through Houston, the seventh-largest U.S. port, grew by more than 10 percent last year, according to IHS Markit. The top carriers were Maersk Line and COSCO Shipping. Houston is the nation’s leading terminal for containerized shipments of synthetic resins.

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