As recently as 2016, the Port of Houston led the nation in oil exports.
Today, it ranks seventh, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
A decade ago, in 2011, the value of its imports was $33.34 billion. It accounted for more than 45% of the value of all imports. Today, through June, the most recent data available, it accounted for less than 8%. The total was $2.59 billion.
This suggests 2021 will mark the third year in the last four that total oil imports will fall below $10 billion at the nation’s No. 6-ranked port by the value of its trade.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia was the port’s third-greatest source of imports, almost exclusively oil. Through June of this year, Saudi Arabia ranks No. 34.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, much of it done not far from the port, has provided the United States with abundant oil, gasoline and natural gas.
Because of this, no top U.S. airport, seaport or border crossing has undergone such fundamental change over the last decade than the Port of Houston.
But it’s not all bad news, either.
This is the sixth in a series of columns I am writing focused on the nation’s top “ports” — airports, seaports and border crossings — and how they are faring compared not only to last year, in the midst of the pandemic, but previous, more normal years.
These columns will include a look at top trade partners, top exports and top imports for each — and some of the factors influencing the results.
In addition to the Port of Houston, I will include the top-ranked Port of Los Angeles, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Port Laredo in Texas, New York’s JFK International, the Port of Newark, Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, the Port of New Orleans, Los Angeles International Airport and the Port of Savannah.
But, again, for the Port of Houston, the energy capital of the world, it’s not all bad news. The reason it is not all bad news can be seen in a look at oil from another vantage point. From the vantage point of exports.
In 2011, the same year Houston set a record for oil imports, its oil exports totaled $85.66 million. This year, through June, the total is $5.51 billion, putting the ports and private terminals along the Houston shipping channel on the path to topping $10 billion for the first time.
That means that a decade after oil imports were worth more than 30 times as much as exports, exports will have topped the value of imports for the third consecutive year.
Oil is not, however, the Port of Houston’s most valuable export. That would be gasoline and other refined petroleum products. It’s not second, either. That would be natural gases, including liquid natural gas, or LNG, which is what tends to ship from the Port of Houston.
Oil ranks third this year, through June.
The dramatic change in the nature of the port’s trade can perhaps be best understood this way:
The Port of Houston, which once had one of the nation’s larger trade deficits, due to oil and gasoline imports, today has the nation’s third-largest surplus — thanks to exports of oil, gasoline and natural gas. It has had a trade surplus 12 consecutive years and will make that 13 this year, the longest run by a U.S. seaport.
It remains a petrochemical leader. In addition to ranking first in the nation for gasoline and natural gas exports, and second for oil, it ranks first for exports of plastics, acyclic hydrocarbons, cyclic hydrocarbons, acetic acids and vinyl acetates and polymers of vinyl chloride, or PVC.
Overall exports this year will probably fall shy of the record set in 2019, before the pandemic and the 21.14% decline. Imports, however, have fallen 37% since 2102, setting the last recording-setting year.
When the final tally is made for 2021, the Port of Houston is likely to have total trade in the range of $150 billion. But it will remain well shy of the $176.56 billion total in 2012, back when oil exports were the name of the game.