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Fog delays Houston area ports for fifth day

  • : Crude oil, LPG, Oil products, Petrochemicals
  • 19/02/05

Houston's winter fog season has created significant delays this week for vessels carrying crude, refined products and other commodities to and from Gulf coast-area facilities.

The Houston Ship Channel, a key waterway that refiners and petrochemical plants use to bring in feedstocks and ship out products, faced closures for the fifth consecutive day today.

There were 57 vessels waiting to enter the Houston Ship Channel as of 5:30pm ET today and 16 waiting to exit, according to a Houston Pilots Association dispatcher. With fog headed inland, it was unlikely that vessels would be able to move later in the day, the dispatcher said.

The October-March period that brings cooler weather to Houston also brings periods of dense fog that can close the Houston Ship Channel and other area ports for days at a time, as warmer humid Gulf air collides with colder onshore air masses.

Dense fog advisories in Houston and Galveston normally peak in the first half of February, according to National Weather Service data.

"February is kind of the worst month for us," said JJ Plunkett, port agent for the Houston Pilots Association, whose pilots help ferry vessels in and out of area ports.

But colder and drier weather is in the Houston-area forecast for 7 February, which could improve vessel movements dramatically, Plunkett said.

Houston Pilots suspended all vessel boarding operations starting at 2:02pm ET on 3 February, while Galveston Pilots suspended operations as of 12pm ET.

Vessels have been able to move in fits and starts over the last few days, alternating between inbound and outbound trips, Plunkett said.

The channel was closed for nine hours 1 February, according to shipping agency Moran Shipping, for just three and a half hours on 2 February and 90 minutes on 3 February. On 4 February the Ship Channel opened for several hours in the afternoon just for inbound traffic but has been closed since 6:25pm ET that day.

Though the record books are still open for 2019 it is unlikely that fog closures will top 2015, when they peaked at 680 total hours, Plunkett said.

Fog-related channel closure hours for Houston, Texas City and Galveston combined fell to 379 hours in 2016 and to 347 hours in 2017 before rising to 537 hours in 2018, according to a US Coast Guard report issued on 1 February.

A closure lasting over 72 hours straight can trigger concerns with refinery and other plant operators, Plunkett said. "At that point they start to get into a bind with their feedstocks or their product containment," he said.

Over 45pc of total US refining capacity is located along the US Gulf coast, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Farther east along the Gulf coast, the Sabine Pass waterway has been closed to large ships, including all LNG ships, since 2 February, and will reopen when the heavy fog lifts, the Sabine Pilots Association said. The fog likely impacted loadings at the Sabine Pass LNG export terminal, though facility owner Cheniere Energy declined to comment.

Five LNG ships are at or near Sabine Pass waiting to lift cargoes. Gas intake likely dropped when the five LNG storage tanks at Sabine Pass, which have capacity equivalent to about 17 Bcf of gas, became full.

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