Why Did Protests Break Out at the Houston Ship Channel?

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  • Expansion of the Houston Ship Channel is crucial to US national and economic security and for regional prosperity.
  • Greenpeace protesters shut off access to the Houston Ship Channel by suspending themselves from the deck of the Fred Hartman Bridge, which spans the channel near Baytown, Texas.

Protesters with Greenpeace closed off access to the upper reaches of the Houston Ship Channel on Thursday by suspending themselves from the deck of the Fred Hartman Bridge, reports Maritime Executive.

Houston Ship Channel expansion

Expansion of the Houston Ship Channel is crucial to US national and economic security and for regional prosperity, the Port Commission chairman of the Port of Houston Authority said Thursday.

In comments to the Greater Houston Port Bureau, Ric Campos said the the mission of the port was to drive regional prosperity. Starting as a four-foot deep waterway for moving cotton barges, the port of Houston is now the US’ busiest waterway.

The port of Houston is home to 200 public and private terminals, is No. 1 in international trade, the No. 1 Gulf container port, the No. 1 project cargo port and the No. 1 steel port,” Campo said. “The port also has 500 million barrels of liquids capacity storage.”

Accommodating larger ships for crude and propane exports

Key to the growth of the port, Campo said, is the deepening and widening of the Houston Ship Channel to accommodate larger ships for increased crude, plastic resin and propane exports from the Houston area. The larger channel will also increase container exports and imports.

The total cost for the improvements, which include deepening and widening the channel is estimated at $1 billion, said Campo.

The improvements would deepen the port of Houston to 45 feet and widen it in some points from 300 feet to 435 feet, allowing for two-way traffic. Wider is safer, Campo said.

The improvement project would be a collaboration between the Port of Houston, the US Corp of Engineers, industry and the Texas community,” he said. The project would require Congressional and presidential approval and would likely be completed by 2035, he added.

People have a right to protest

Campo also addressed the shutting of part of the Houston Ship Channel by Greenpeace protesters Thursday morning.

Americans have a right to protest, as long as they do it in a peaceful and lawful way,” he said.

He noted that all of the plastic security equipment the protesters were wearing, along with the van that transported them and jet fuel used for airline travel to get to Houston were hydrocarbons.

Channel closed to marine traffic

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston received notification of the action at 0630 hours Wednesday. A Coast Guard response boat crew monitored the situation.

The channel was closed to marine traffic between Light 102A and Light 104, effectively closing off access to the channel’s upper reaches in the cities of Baytown and Houston.

As of 0730 hours, one inbound vessel and two outbound vessels were queued and waiting to transit under the span.

The action has temporarily cut off access to the following refineries:

  • Baytown Refinery,
  • the Valero Houston refinery,
  • the Shell Deer Park refinery,
  • the LyondellBasell Houston refinery and
  • the Chevron Pasadena refinery

They together have a combined capacity of nearly 1.5 million barrels per day. However, the protest’s planned duration means that it is unlikely to have a material effect on refinery operations.

Protest not to be interfered

Greenpeace said that the demonstration will last 24 hours – a period that will coincide with the third set of televised Democratic Party presidential primary debates, which will be held at Texas Southern University.

Greenpeace confirmed the connection between the debates and the direct action protest, challenging “every candidate on stage [Thursday] to promise to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable if they become president.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office told the Houston Chronicle that it has no intention of interfering with the protest. “If it becomes a health or safety issue, we may be forced to help them,” said HCSO chief of law enforcement Tim Navarre. “We don’t want to create a situation that would cause harm to them or death.”

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Source: S&P Global Platts, Maritime Executive

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