It takes an expert pilot to pull off the Texas Chicken.
The maneuver, in which crossing ships set up for a head-on collision and use each other’s wave pressure to swerve safely past, is the only way to handle two-way traffic in the Houston Ship Channel, which connects downtown with the Galveston Bay and Gulf of Mexico. The narrow waterway is used by some 400 vessels every day, from barges to tankers almost as long as the tallest skyscraper on the horizon.
“We’re still trying to stuff these bigger ships up these tiny ditches,” said Captain Mike Morris, presiding officer of the Houston Pilots, the corps of 95 mariners who drive ships on the six-hour trip up the channel. “Everywhere you look in the port, we’re expanding.”
All along this 52-mile shipping lane, there are signs of the energy resurgence that BP says might enable the U.S. to meet all its own needs by 2035. Construction cranes and excavators line the banks. Pipes large enough for a person to crawl through wait to be buried. Ship screens show lists of nearby vessels that run on for pages.
The channel is a symbol of the boom that surrounds it, with truckers getting $5,000 signing bonuses, students flocking to midnight welding classes and out-of-town workers filling up recreational-vehicle parks.
Much of the record U.S. growth in oil and gas output is getting squeezed through Houston, the country’s largest export gateway and the core of the biggest refining region. An average day on the water in 2013 saw 38 tankers, 22 freighters, one cruise ship, 345 tows, six public vessels, 297 ferries, 25 other transits and 75 ships in port, Coast Guard data show.
“The only thing I can say is, ‘Wow,’ ” said Tim Gunn, a 39-year-old tugboat captain for Buffalo Marine Service Inc. who has worked on the water for 13 years. “Sometimes you can meet and be overtaken by a handful of ships, 10 to 15 of them. When I first started it seemed like two or three.”
As companies spend an unprecedented $35 billion on expansion projects along the Houston Ship Channel by next year, some are beginning to question how well the century-old infrastructure can keep up. A shortfall in federal maintenance funding means a buildup of sediment is threatening to disrupt commerce that totals an estimated $330 million a day.
Silt from the bayou and river that feed into the channel have cut 2 feet off the 45-foot depth, according to Bill Diehl, president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau.
At the turn of the 20th century, Houston was a provincial cotton-trading hub with only slightly more inhabitants than its coastal neighbor to the east, Galveston, home to the region’s deepwater port. Buffalo Bayou, less than 10 feet deep, was most of the navigable water between the cities.
After a hurricane battered Galveston in September 1900, U.S. Rep. Tom Ball successfully lobbied Congress to dredge the ship channel to a depth of 25 feet.
“At that time, Houston was still a small town,” said Janiece Longoria, chairman of the Port of Houston Authority. “Houston owes all its bounty to the ship channel.”
The resulting waterway is four miles longer than the Panama Canal. Today, about 8 percent of U.S. refining capacity lines its shores. It’s home to the country’s largest petrochemical complex, and pipelines link the spot with the oil hub in Cushing, Okla.; Chicago and New York Harbor; and oil fields throughout the Midwest and Texas.
All those connections make the ship channel prime real estate in the midst of an energy production boom in the U.S. Increased use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has boosted output of crude oil, natural gas and petrochemical feedstocks, while legal and logistical export barriers have reduced U.S. prices relative to the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, the little bayou has become one of the most crowded waterways in the world.
The ship channel has enough capacity to meet the demand of the surrounding industries, said Charlie Jenkins, the port authority’s vice president of strategic planning. The number of deepwater docks will jump to 45 from 10 in the next few years, Diehl said.
Vessel traffic in the channel actually declined in 2013 because of bigger ships and fewer oil imports, Jenkins said.
Capacity may be stretched as companies plan to spend $35billion on new projects and expansions along the ship channel, according to a 2012 Greater Houston Port Bureau survey. That’s creating 265,800 jobs, the study showed. The port’s total economic impact amounts to more than $178.5 billion in Texas and $499 billion nationwide, according to the port authority.
All the property along the ship channel is owned, and most of it developed, the port authority said. Even the vacant lots are used for dredged-up earth.
Waterfront property fetches as much as $300,000 an acre, said Pat Brown, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners’ vice president of terminals operations.
While the concentration of industry has the advantage of flexible supplies of products to keep different parts of plants running if one component goes down, facilities are encountering bottlenecks at every stage, from having enough rail capacity to packaging, said Ron Corn, senior vice president of specialties, aromatics and styrenics for Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.
Expecting the congestion will only get worse as U.S. output increases, the Woodlands, Texas-based joint venture of Chevron Corp. and Phillips 66 is also considering other sites on the U.S. East Coast, West Coast and Mexico, Corn said.