INSIGHT: Game of ‘Texas chicken’ being played on US waterways

Lane Kelley


By Lane Kelly

Waterway collison sparks questionsHOUSTON (ICIS news)–What happens when an 870-foot oil tanker heads straight into a tugboat pushing two barges full of benzene?

The question concerns a maritime manoeuvre called “Texas chicken”, which doesn’t necessarily require an oil tanker or two barges full of benzene or any other chemicals, or any barges, for that matter.

All it takes is two ships passing each other on a stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway near Port Arthur, Texas. Vessels that are sometimes as long as a football field and sometimes half as wide close in on each other at a combined speed of just under 20 mph.

They head directly into each other, and then at the last minute, break away – the last minute, for a ship pilot, being when the other vessel is within half a mile. Water pressure keeps them apart.

If there were a history of this manoeuvre – and ship pilots bringing oil and chemical tankers into and out of Port Arthur have practiced the tactic for decades – one chapter could certainly be devoted to what happened on 23 January when the oil tanker Eagle Otome and two barge loads of benzene pushed by the tug Dixie Vengeance tried to pass each other on the Sabine Neches Waterway.

What happened was the largest oil spill in Texas since 1994, though hardly comparable in size or damage to the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. The US Coast Guard (USCG) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the incident but have not released any findings.

The bigger question arising from the incident, though, is why is this game of Texas chicken being played on waterways throughout the US, because of too-narrow channels that need to be dredged wider and deeper so that they are safer for transit by huge vessels?

The last time the Sabine Neches Waterway was widened was in 1962, said Charles Tweedel, head of the group of state-licensed pilots who have been guiding vessels in and out of the Beaumont-Port Arthur area for over a century.

Tweedel said oil tankers have grown at least three sizes larger since the early 1960s, but the channel has not. “Basically we work in a waterway designed for ships much smaller than the ones we currently operate,” Tweedel said.

The waterway where the collision occurred is 400 ft (wide, 100ft thinner than the Houston Ship Channel. That may not sound like a thin passageway for tankers – an American football field is 300ft wide (for those with seats in the stands). Add 60ft for both end zones and then a few feet for the photographers on both ends and you can probably visualise a 126ft-wide oil tanker cruising by a string of 55ft-wide barges in that space with room to spare.

But the problem on most waterways in the Texas Gulf and in many spots along the Intracoastal Waterway is that most big vessels don’t have the whole football field to navigate because of insufficient water depths.

Imagine having only half of the football field for that tanker to pass the barge tow, which was pretty much the case in the Eagle Otome spill.

Tweedel said only about half the channel is available at some points, and that he has navigated it with only inches to spare.

Throughout the US and North America there are many waterways with only inches to spare for these huge tankers.

In January, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave an overall grade of D- to the nation’s inland waterways system, classifying 47% of the country’s 257 locks as being functionally obsolete.

The Army Corps of Engineers put a number on the problem, saying 30% of the 100,000 vessel calls annually at US ports were hampered by inadequate channel depths.

Along the same line, a report by the Government Accounting Office in 2008, said 59% of the nation’s busiest waterways were too shallow at least 65% of the time or more.

A too-shallow waterway can only be navigated by a tanker that is travelling with less than a full load.

In 2008, the year of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike on the Gulf coast, giant oil tankers heading to the Port of Lake Charles had to avoid topping off because silt stirred up by the hurricanes in the Calcasieu river made it only 38ft deep, which was two feet shallower than the depth required by the Army Corps for maintenance.

Dredging projects abound, but not all are funded. Former Port of Houston director Thomas Kornegay said last year that Congress traditionally only gave the Army Corps 60% of the funds it needed for dredging projects.

That also applies to projects throughout the US and not just in Texas or on the Gulf coast.

The federal government allocated $90m (€66.6m) last year for dredging at the Port of New York and New Jersey so that the port’s main channel could be deepened to 50 ft to allow access for the world’s largest ocean-going vessels. But the Obama Administration provided only $57m, or 63% of the allocation in its new budget.

Such cuts drew criticism from the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), which represents 160 seaports in the US, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean, and also from a New Jersey congressman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen.

Frelinghuysen, a Republican from New Jersey, said cutting the Port of New York’s dredging allocation from $5.4bn this year to $4.9bn in 2011 made no sense in light of efforts to provide economic stimulus.

“In light of the Administration’s stated desire to stimulate and sustain our economy through ‘shovel-ready’ projects, this critically important dredging work should be one of the highest priorities.” Frelinghuysen said.

($1 = €0.74)

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