Corpus Christi port gears up for project cargo growth

Corpus Christi port gears up for project cargo growth

Money is pouring into the port of Corpus Christi, and project cargo shipments will be close behind.

A $50 billion boom in private investment is expected to generate increased project cargo at the Port of Corpus Christi, Texas.

“That’s $50 billion, with a B,” said Sean Strawbridge, the port’s deputy executive director and chief operating officer. “Some entire states don’t have that much.”

ExxonMobil’s recent announcement of a $10 billion ethane cracker at Corpus Christi is the latest in a series of petrochemical investments by companies seeking to capitalize on cheap natural gas feedstocks. With annual capacity of 1.8 million tons, the cracker would be the world’s largest.

Other big projects in and around Corpus Christi include Cheniere Energy’s $13 billion natural gas liquefaction plant, which is scheduled in 2020 to complete the first of five planned “trains” or refrigeration units for liquefying natural gas.

Large construction jobs such as these require shipment of heavy and oversized pieces, including large modules fabricated offsite and delivered to the plant for installation.

Port officials view project cargo as another piece in an increasingly diversified cargo base. With three local refineries, Corpus Christi has for decades handled large volumes of crude oil. The port’s cargo base also includes chemicals, grain, dry and liquid bulk, and breakbulk shipments.

More than a decade ago, Corpus Christi considered becoming a container port but eventually decided to play to its natural strength in energy-related cargoes, including petrochemicals, liquefied natural gas, and wind energy components.

Last year, the port recorded 345,811 tons of breakbulk cargoes, approximately the port’s annual average for the last decade. The volume included project shipments and electricity-producing windmills, Corpus Christi handled 68 ship loads of wind energy cargoes last year, and annually ranks among the top three ports in that category.

Corpus Christi has five multipurpose breakbulk docks that Strawbridge said are sufficient to handle current breakbulk volume. The port’s bulk terminal also can be used for project cargo handling.

The port added two new docks last year, will open two this year, and three next year, Strawbridge said. Most of the new docks are designed for bulk petroleum, but one will be a multipurpose dock to handle cargo for the ExxonMobil cracker project.

The port plans $1 billion in capital spending during the next 10 years. The port’s 45-foot-deep, 400-foot-wide ship channel will be deepened to 52 feet and widened to 530 feet, plus two shallower “shelves” for barge traffic.

Corpus Christi has completed the first phase of a rail yard that eventually will have eight sidings with average length of 8,500 feet. The rail yard will be the main exchange for the three port’s three Class I lines — BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, and Kansas City Southern Railway.

Another big project is the replacement of a cross-harbor bridge,with a $950 million span that that would have 205-foot clearance, compared with 138 feet for the existing one. The port is contributing $70 million of the $950 million cost.

Meanwhile, to handle expected growth in project shipments and oversized cargoes, the port has been adding near-dock open storage. Unlike containers, windmill blades and petrochemical plant modules can’t be stacked.

“We’ve got to optimize the land we have, and redevelop some of it to its highest and best use,” Strawbridge said. With the multibillion-dollar private investments in and around the port, he said, “I think we’ll be busy for the next decade.”

Contact Joseph Bonney at joseph.bonney@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @JosephBonney.