Amidst a Petrochemical Wonderland
A VISIT TO THE HOUSTON Ship Channel is a compelling activity, highly recommended for anyone interested in current events. Here, in this petrochemical Mecca, the largest petrochemical complex in the United States, the full extent of our saturation in the oil economy can be seen, felt, smelled, and fathomed. From Houston, a tour can easily be done in a day, and there are numerous interpretive areas, monuments, markers and museums that help visitors understand this most complex complex.
The ship channel is an expanded version of an old muddy creek called the Buffalo Bayou, which connects downtown Houston to Galveston Bay and the Gulf. It was enlarged for shipping in stages over the past two centuries, initially to bring Southern cotton to the coast. It wasn’t until the US Congress officially declared Houston, fifty miles inland, a Port City, in 1870, that the dredging and widening projects really took off. With the work of the Army Corps of Engineers and the resources of the investor Charles Morgan, a shipping magnate eager to avoid Galveston’s dockage fees, the first ocean going vessel made it up the channel in 1876 (an event that no doubt rivaled the local celebration of the nation's centennial in importance that year).
Today, the Port of Houston, which manages many of the ship channel’s terminal facilities, and includes the petrochemical plants of the area in its figures, is the one of the busiest ports in the country, handling more foreign tonnage than any other port in the U.S., primarily in the form of bulk materials, and most of it petrochemical. Approximately one quarter of the refining capacity of the United States is located along the ship channel, at over 20 petrochemical plants in the channel area. They are linked by pipelines, selling streams of liquid product to one another, and bringing in crude from hundreds of platforms in the Gulf, as well as heavier, cheaper crude from Mexico.
Some of this superlative industrial land and seascape can be viewed on the Port of Houston’s free public boat tour aboard the M/V Sam Houston. The 90 minute tour leaves from the port’s Sam Houston Pavilion, and accommodates up to 100 people. It is often crowded with school kids. The tour covers the turning basin area, the most inland portion of the navigable ship channel, and passes the 610 highway bridge. A few petrochemical plants are visible along the way, but the most impressive sights may be a large U.S. Gypsum shed full of Mexican gypsum, the old Deepwater Power Plant, and the massive Public Grain Elevator #2.
The boat turns around soon after passing the first major refinery on the ship channel, the Lyondell-Citgo refinery, a medium sized plant that processes crude from Venezuela. Though based in Tulsa Oklahoma, Citgo is owned by the government of Venezuela, through its national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). The Houston refinery is one of two that are mostly owned by the company in Texas (the other is at Corpus Christie) and one of four mostly owned by the company in the USA (the other two are in Lake Charles, Louisiana and Lemont Illinois). With a capacity of around 270,000 barrels per day, it is the fourth largest in the Ship Channel area, and the 11th largest refinery in the nation.
To get into the heart of ship channels’ petrochemical countryside, land is the preferred route, and there are several spectacular viewing opportunities and interpretive facilities provided by the state historical and transportation agencies.
From the 610 loop, south of the channel, head east on La Port Freeway (Highway 225) through the town of Pasadena, where you can see the Crown Central Petroleum Corporation’s refinery (one of two in the country owned by this small, independent oil company) off Shaver Street, and numerous industrial parks and pipeline facilities, until you reach the monumental Shell Deer Park facility. Shell Deer Park is a 1,500-acre complex located in Deer Park, comprised of an oil refinery and a chemical plant. The refinery employs around 1,000 people, and is the sixth largest in the nation, with a capacity of 340,000 barrels per day. The refinery is half owned by Pemex, the Mexican state oil company, and approximately 70% of the crude processed at the refinery is Maya and Olmeca crude oil imported from Mexico. The balance is domestic crude oil, mostly from Texas and Louisiana. The chemical plant employs 800, and is a major national supplier of base chemicals for plastics, paints, and other products. North off the 225 on Route 134, visitors will pass the Rhom and Haas Deer Park Chemical Plant which makes acrylic adhesives, plastics, and paint. This is the way to the finest viewing site in the Ship.
This state historic monument is an Art Deco obelisk that is the tallest free-standing column in the world. It is located on the battlegrounds, which happen to be, now, on the edge of the Ship Channel. Built in 1939, it is 570 feet tall (15 feet higher than the Washington Monument, due to a large Texas star at its top). It has an elevator that takes visitors to an observation deck near the tip, from which a dramatic 360 degree view can be had, albeit through fairly small windows, of the low flat land of eastern Texas.
Visible to the east of the Monument, further down the Ship Channel, is the largest oil refinery in the country, ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex. Of the 150 or so oil refineries in the USA, the average processing capacity is less than 150,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The Baytown refinery’s capacity is 525,000 barrels per day. In addition, the plant has two research centers and two chemical production facilities making plastics such as polypropylene and synthetic rubber, and specialty fluids for paint and household cleaners. It employs nearly 6,000 people.
After Baytown, the ship channel passes the DuPont’s La Porte plant, which since the mid-1950’s has been making weed killers, formaldehyde, and other biochemicals, and is the world’s largest polyvinyl alcohol plant, a substance that is used in the clothing industry for weaving polyester blends into synthetic fabrics like Lycra and Spandex, and for acetates that are used in things like car windshields. The plant employs around 1,000 people.
Highway 225 ends at DuPont, at the intersection of Highway 146, where a great view can be had off the Fred Hartman Bridge, whose eight lanes of roadway soar over the Ship Channel. The bridge is the largest cable-stayed span in the country (though the Dame Point bridge in Jacksonville, Florida is 50 feet longer, it is not as wide as this one). It opened in 1995, replacing the narrow Baytown Tunnel, which was constructed fifty years ago, and had become an obstruction for the effort to deepen the ship channel to accommodate larger ships. After the bridge opened, the middle section of the tubular tunnel was removed by flotation, and barged to the Gulf, where it was sunk, joining numerous sunken oil rigs as an “artificial reef.” The two end sections of the tunnel, closer to the shore, were flooded and left in place.
At this point, the Ship Channel now flows in a dredged channel of the San Jacinto River, Buffalo Bayou having drained into San Jacinto Bay near the monument. The river winds through a series of small islands and bays, rounds Morgan’s Point, with the Port of Houston’s large container facility at Barbours Cut, then it spills into Galveston Bay. The oil industry picks up again dramatically at Texas City, and Highway 146 takes you there.
Texas City has three refineries: Valero's, which is of mid to large size at 215,000 barrels per day capacity; Marathon Ashland Petroleum LLC, a joint venture between Marathon Oil Corp., and Ashland Inc., which operates a smallish refinery with a 76,000 barrels per day capacity; and British Petroleum (BP) which has its largest refinery here, with a capacity of over 450,000 barrels per day, making it the third largest in the nation.
Across from the Valero and Marathon refineries at the entrance to the port of Texas City is one of two monuments that discuss the thing Texas City is most famous for: blowing up. In 1947, a French ship filled with ammonium nitrate (which had been converted from explosives to fertilizer at chemical plants in the area for shipment to Europe), caught fire in the harbor and soon exploded. The shockwaves from the explosion damaged the industrial plants and refineries in the region, many of which, since they deal with extremely volatile material, also caught fire and had their own cascading series of explosions, lasting for days. 15 foot high water waves generated by the explosion washed through town, and later that night, another ammonium nitrate ship in the harbor, that had been on fire all day, exploded, sending the worst of the shockwaves across the ruined city. It took a week to put out all the fires. One third of the homes in the town of 16,000 were condemned. A total of nearly 600 people were killed.
The main memorial for the disaster is located at the cemetery, just east of Highway 146, on the north side of Loop 197. Continue down loop 197 through town to the refineries and the port on the south side of town, then back on to Highway 146, and to Interstate 45, the Gulf Freeway, which leads to the last interpretive site on this remarkable chain of petrochemical production, the Ocean Star Museum.
The refineries of the Ship Channel are referred to by the oil industry as the “downstream” end of the industry, where the raw material is processed into saleable products. As we flow downstream on the Ship Channel, we get to the “upstream” end of the industry, at Galveston and the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, where the crude oil is extracted from the earth. The Galveston Channel, the sheltered inland side of the Island, is littered with oil rigs, towed in from the gulf for repair or scrap. Some are used for parts, some are reconditions, and some seem to remain for use as movie locations. One has been turned into the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, a most remarkable and unique museum about this startlingly complex and dramatic part of the petrochemical industry.
After a visit to the Ocean Star, visitors to the petrochemical corridor around the Houston Ship Channel will have completed their immersion in the land of oil. The return trip to Houston via Interstate 45 takes only an hour. Back in Houston, a tour of oil, oil services, and energy company headquarters shows another aspect of the industry. But that will have to wait for another day.
Historical layers in the region surrounding the ship channel interact with the contemporary industry in curious ways. Fields dedicated to battle re-enactments and reforestation projects and monuments are paired with today's tank farms and cracking towers, creating a contrast that further enhances the remaining natural or restored landscape as historical artifact. ♦