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Road rage in the Houston Ship Channel

The Houston Ship Channel

PortandTerminal.com, January 31, 2019

The width of the Houston Ship Channel has become a constraint to the flow of two-way traffic along it as the ships that use the Channel get bigger. Two interests that rely on the channel, oil and containers, have spoken out to voice their complaints.

Oil interests

The Houston Ship Channel services the largest petrochemical manufacturing complex in the United States and the second largest in the world.

U.S. oil exports have soared to nearly 2 million barrels a day since a near four-decade moratorium was lifted in late 2015, just as shale production kicked into high gear. 

Recently, a coalition of oil-and-gas companies including Enterprise Product Partners (EPD) and Kinder Morgan (KMI) have warned that Port Houston’s recent decision to accept larger container ships impacts traffic in the port and threatens to inhibit the shale boom (WSJ, Dec. 19, 2018).

The coalition wants to cap the number of 1,100-foot-plus container ships that come to Houston to one per week.

Container cargo interests

Photo: Port of Houston

Port Houston reported record operating revenue in 2018 as its container volume reached a new high. The port handled 2.7 million TEU in 2018, an increase of 10% over the 2.46 million it handled in 2017.

Representatives for container shipping companies and trucking companies have pushed back against an oil interest proposal to restrict the number of 1,100-foot-plus container vessels that call on Houston, saying this would hurt the entire shipping and logistics supply chain.

“With a one-vessel-per-week limit, we fail to see how the port could dictate which steamship lines may and may not access the container terminals. We can’t have a system which forces the port to pick winners and losers.

Brian Fielkow, CEO, Jetco Delivery

The expanded Panama Canal has allowed Houston to welcome larger vessels from Asia, bringing down shipping costs and prompting retailers to open distribution centers. A restriction on containerships, however, could upend those gains and affect jobs throughout the supply chain

Caught in the middle

Caught in the middle are The Houston Pilots, tasked with guiding vessels in and out of the Houston Ship Channel.

They were forced to enact safety measures that reduced the Houston Ship Channel’s typical two-way traffic to one way when moving the new very large container ships.

In one incident last December, the Houston Pilots were forced to shut the channel down to one lane to allow an MSC container ship, the Pusan C, to enter the channel. Meanwhile, a second ship, the oil tanker Seletar Spirit was forced to wait 18 hours until it could leave the Channel.

The channel snakes from Houston Bay through a network of refineries and petrochemical plants. 

The pilots are expected to ease such restrictions as they become more familiar with the larger vessels.

The channel, which has been periodically widened and deepened to accommodate ever-larger ships, is 530 feet (160 m) wide by 45 feet (14 m) deep by 50 miles (80 km) long.

Source: Houston Pilots Mariner’s guide to the channel

The problems begin when two very large vessels need to use the channel at the same time. In the diagram below the container and oil tanker vessels that prompted the Houston Pilots to shut the channel down to one lane are shown to approximate scale. Their combined widths take up well over half of the main channel’s maximum width of 530 feet. This leaves very little room to manoeuver and increases the risk of a potentially catastrophic accident to occur.

Image source: Cutter Maritime Inc.


The Houston Pilots have said that they expect the lane restrictions to ease up once they become more familiar with navigating the newer very large vessels through the channel. Ultimately though, the Channel will likely be caught in an ongoing cycle of catching up with the ever-larger ships that need to use it.

“The size of the ships is going to grow, and that’s going to make the competitive nature of the ports even more severe than it was in the past,”

Jim Kruse, Director of the Center for Ports and Waterways, Texas A&M Transportation Institute

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