Port of Houston feeling effects of oil boom

Bloomberg/Fuel Fix:
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 (84-kilometer) shipping lane, there are signs of the energy resurgence that BP Plc 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.
There is much more.

The ship channel was dredged after a 1900 hurricane destroyed much of Galveston.  The dredge material was used to raise the level of Galveston Island about 10 feet and put in a sea wall to protect it from some hurricane damage.   It has been widened and deepened to handle the new bigger ships.  The dredge material in recent years has been used to recreate wetlands along the coast.


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