County judge says deepening waterway could save billions following next disaster

A dredge on the Sabine-Neches Waterway

Hurricane Harvey heavily impacted Southeast Texas and, according to information from the Sabine-Neches Navigation District, the storm’s influence reached well beyond the area, effectively costing consumers in the United States an estimated $4.3 billion in increased prices at the gas pump.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick and Sabine-Neches Navigation District General Manager Randy Reese recently traveled to Washington D.C. to ask for financial assistance with the Sabine-Neches Waterway Channel Improvement Project, a project that would deepen the waterway from 40 feet to 48 feet and, in the event of another natural disaster, could prevent Americans from paying up to 88 percent of the billions spent on inflated gas prices.

“Our main purpose in going was to speak with our senators and congressmen and staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee about the need to put $750 million into the disaster supplemental appropriations for the deepening of the ship channel,” Branick said Nov. 13.

Branick said the project had been planned for years and the Senate Appropriations Committee already approved funding for the deepening in 2014. However, due to limited funding for numerous improvement projects for which they receive applications, the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to disburse the funds for the project.

Because of the significant financial losses caused by Harvey, Branick and Reese approached the group in Washington to ask that the $750 million already approved be provided out of funds being distributed to Harvey-impacted areas to rebuild.

“One of the issues is that since 2011, they have not done anything to appropriate funds except to bring an area back to pre-disaster state,” Branick explained. “We’re asking them to go beyond the pre-disaster state and to deepen it. It’s something that we’re asking for that’s special. But, by gosh, we are special. Our waterway is special. So much of the rest of the country is dependent on that waterway for finished, refined energy products. It’s really bad decision-making to not spend the money it takes to protect it.”

According to Branick, over the last year the waterway has exported more than it imports, providing a good portion of the United States with refined gasoline and other products.

“We’re the No. 2 crude exporter in the United States. I don’t think we can overemphasize the role Jefferson County plays in supplying the nation’s energy needs. We’re the third largest refining complex in the United States. We’ll be No. 1 very soon because of all the industrial expansions that are now in our area,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of what we produce here in Jefferson County goes to the Mid-West, the Northeast or the Southeast and so on. The impacts here in Jefferson County greatly affected the rest of the United States.”

The Sabine-Neches Waterway is currently providing over 90 percent of the nation’s LNG exports. Reese of the Navigation District said the waterway refinery complex also provides the majority of jet fuel utilized by the U.S. military.

“This is not a regional waterway,” said Reese. “And we were the only waterway impacted during Hurricane Harvey that has a standing appropriation to be deepened.”

During the disruption caused by Harvey, said Branick, the waterway had significant shoaling, a buildup of silt, sand and sediment that reduced the size of the ship channel. As a result, the Coast Guard put in a draft restriction that would not allow ships to transit through the waterway if the draft of the vessel exceeded 26 feet. The draft is the vertical distance between a ship’s waterline and the lowest point of its keel. The waterway can usually accommodate vessels with a 40-foot draft. The deepening project would increase the draft limit to 48 feet, allowing even larger vessels access.

“It will improve the profitability and efficiency of area refineries because what happens right now is they bring in a ship that has a 44-foot draft, they have to lighter those offshore,” said Branick. “So, they have to transfer them to another smaller boat, which increases congestion in the Sabine-Neches Waterway and makes them less profitable and efficient. If they could just bring their ship directly in to the deepened waterway, it would save them a ton of money and save the consumers a ton of money.”

According to the Navigation District, which had an economist analyze data collected during and after Harvey, “had the fully authorized 48-foot Channel Improvement Project been constructed prior to Harvey, the direct impact to retail gasoline costs alone would be reduced” by 88 percent and an estimated $4.3 billion in losses post-Harvey over the course of 10 weeks.

Branick said the group they spoke to in Washington included United States Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and U.S. Rep. Randy Weber of the 14th District of Texas, as well as staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said they were supportive of the funding.

“When they looked at the numbers, $750 million invested in a waterway that would save you billions of dollars in the event of another natural disaster, it was a very supportive response from our senators and congressmen,” Branick related.

If the $750-million appropriation for the Channel Improvement Project is approved, the Navigation District would provide a $350-million match.