The flourishing U.S. petrochemical industry is propelling an era of expanding activity for Gulf region seaports, according to presenters at the eighth annual Critical Commodities Conference in New Orleans.
“It’s an exciting time and a competitive time as well,” said John Orr, senior vice president for the Southern Region of the Canadian National Railway Co. “It is a fantastic opportunity right now for the Gulf.
“If we don’t seize those opportunities, the winners will be those historic ports of the East Coast,” Orr added, noting the soon-to-be-completed Panama Canal expansion plus significant infrastructure additions at CN-served ports of New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.
Andy Powell, vice president and general manager at Grieg Star Shipping, was among numerous speakers at the April 12-14 conference honing in on the petrochemical boom.
Powell said the Norway-based breakbulk carrier grew its business with the forest products trade but now is increasingly serving petrochemical interests in the Gulf region, commenting, “We see a great opportunity here with this surge of petrochemicals.
“There is an alternative to containers,” Powell said, citing Grieg Star’s ability to carry plastic resins and other petrochemical goods in super-sacks.
Christian Jensen, president of New Orleans-based drayage and warehousing provider Jensen Companies, said resins and other petrochemical products – being turned out in greater volumes fueled by an affordable supply of natural gas and raw materials generated by shale projects – are projected to bring 450,000 twenty-foot-equivalent container units of additional export cargo over the next 36 months through Gulf ports, particularly Houston and New Orleans.
The director of global logistics at Houston-based resin producer Ascend Performance Materials, Brian W. Wyly, said his company expects to surpass the 1 billion pounds shipped mark in 2016. To handle the growth, Ascend has deployed its own fleet of 150 chassis and instituted a dedicated barge network from Texas to Alabama.
Richard Teubner, vice president of Seacor AMH LLC, said his company’s barge services have been busy providing an alternative to rail and road transport, including with a recently begun container-on-barge offering along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
And Laurent Olmeta, vice president for export trade at containership operator CMA CGM Group, said his company has enjoyed substantial gains in export volumes from New Orleans over the past year – and he sees that trend continuing.
Stewart Serpas, Houston-based supply chain director for the packaging and specialty plastics unit of The Dow Chemical Co., said net U.S. exports of plastics could more than triple by 2030. He said Dow’s marine-packed cargo exports from the U.S. Gulf are anticipated to increase next year by 34,000 containers.
The Gulf upswing isn’t limited to petrochemical exports, according to Katie J. Peralta, president and co-owner of Triton Stone Group of New Orleans, a leading importer of granite and other natural stone products.
Peralta said Triton Stone finds itself increasingly relying on its transportation partners, including steamship line Mediterranean Shipping Co. and trucking provider Transportation Consultants Inc.
Dan Bresolin, assistant vice president of international sales and marketing for intermodal at Canadian National Railway, said inland terminals are gaining significance, underscoring the need to improve relationships with truck drivers.
“Truckers and how we treat them is important now more than ever,” Bresolin said. The executive director of the Port of Houston, Roger Guenther, said efficiencies are imperative in getting cargo moved ashore and through port facilities, and, with calls by bigger containerships, ports should prepare to extend operating hours to take full advantage of assets.
“We’d rather handle larger ships than a lot of smaller ships,” Guenther said. “No one wants to work more hours than ports.”
A Southeast port official, Curtis J. Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said he sees U.S. ports and supportive infrastructure as a whole as ill-prepared to accommodate larger ships and burgeoning container volumes, calling for the federal government to advance priority projects at and around top marine gateways.
“The U.S. ports are in a very poor position to handle this growth and this transition to larger ships,” Foltz said.
Charles A. Smith Jr., senior manager of global logistics for Interstate Battery System of America Inc., said potential congestion and other woes at individual ports have led his Dallas-based company to utilize multiple major ports, stating, “We try to diversify what ports we use so we don’t have all our eggs in one port basket.” Smith said Interstate Batteries is now moving less cargo than before by intermodal rail and more by truck because lower fuel costs have made trucking costs more competitive.
Patrick Casey, vice president of fleet management at railcar provider TTX Co., said he expects use of intermodal rail to increase as federal regulations tighten trucking capacity. He added that, with the loss of much coal and other energy-related cargos, railroads have ample available capacity and have enhanced velocity and service reliability.
Using the conference as a forum for speaking out against International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea requirements to take effect July 1 for reporting of verified gross mass, or VGM, of containers before loading, Donna Lemm, vice president of global sales at third-party logistics firm Mallory Alexander International Logistics, asked rhetorically, “Why are we adding costs to an already overburdened supply chain?
“The SOLAS amendment will create chaos, havoc and congestion,” she said.
Jean Chartrand, senior manager of strategic sales for global marine terminal operator DP World, said his firm plans to charge shippers $245 apiece for weighing containers received at its facilities without the weight verification documentation. Bill Ferguson, vice president of security services and environmental affairs at NYK Line (NA) Inc., said his ocean carrier company will not load any containers for which VGM has not been provided at least one hour prior to final cargo cutoff time.
In yet another session, Peter Keller, executive vice president of TOTE Inc., which operates the world’s first two containerships powered by liquefied natural gas between Jacksonville, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico, said he believes carriers will increasingly “do the right thing” and fuel more vessels with LNG, commenting, “Environmental consciousness is the new reality.” (For reception photos, see page 13.)