Tackling congestion in the port of Houston

Houston port congestion and how to deal with it with solutions ranging from self-regulation to big data were the focus of discussions at this week's Mare Forum conference.

These deliberations provided the backdrop for the central thrust of the conference. US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Thomas, who now commands the Eighth District (with responsibilities spanning the entire US Gulf, who suggested that it was “time for industry to step up” and work towards self-regulation in the increasingly de-regulated environment in Washington, DC.

Amidst discussions of the logistical challenges in Houston,particularly multiple berthing arrangements for the burgeoning chemical carrier trades, including trips out to anchorages in between actual times at docks, Admiral Thomas suggested that: “Houston is the best place to demonstrate how industry devised and led initiatives might work.”

Representatives from two oil majors provided forecasts of shifting energy landscapes over time; both noted that the US exports of crude oil will continue to grow. The representative from BP America, Mark Finley, suggested that US LNG imports will reach wide ranging destinations and that prices of gas might take on the role as a worldwide numeraire.

Finley, and his counterpart from Conoco Phillips, Casey Scott, both noted uncertainties regarding refining developments post 2020, when requirements for low sulphur (0.5%) shipping fuels kick in. In response to questions about non-availability of low sulphur fuels, Admiral Thomas reminded attendees of the USCG’s reasonableness in late 2012 when the US coastal region became an ECA requiring low sulphur (1.0%) marine fuels. He also reminded attendees that fears of difficulties in sourcing 1.0% sulphur fuel proved to be unfounded.

Cyber matters provided an underlying murmur throughout the day. Here too, Admiral Thomas, whose previous posting, at USCG Headquarters, as Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy, thrust him in the middle of cyber security issues played a pivotal role in the discussions- where the group contrasted the dynamic nature of cyber threats with slow plodding nature of regulatory processes/ implementations.

Blockchain, an emerging way of organizing and securing all manner of data also came up, notably in several questions from Keith Letourneau, Partner in the Houston office of lawyers Blank Rome, and one of the Mare Forum panelists. He drew the linkage between complicated and inefficient processes for berthing and moving vessels around the port, suggesting that a common and secure data platform for ship movements and berthing notices may form part of a solution.

Posted 19 October 2017

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Barry Parker

New York correspondent, Seatrade Maritime

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