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The Port of Lake Charles and the Calcasieu Ship Channel: Our Connection to a Global Economy

As with many products and comforts consumers take for granted every day, the significance of the Port of Lake Charles and the Calcasieu Ship Channel typically goes unnoticed by the average Southwest Louisiana resident.

The economic boom taking hold of the region would not be trending so feverishly on our newsfeeds or printed so widely in our newspapers if it weren’t for the gravitational grip of Port of Lake Charles and the Calcasieu Ship Channel as the conduit for the nation’s energy needs.

Bringing jobs and business to Southwest Louisiana rests at the core of the Port’s mission, and dozens of facilities, both current tenants and expanding facilities, provide substantial economic growth for the region and nation. Companies such as Magnolia LNG, Citgo, IFG Holdings, Sasol, Cameron LNG/Sempra Energy, Trunkline LNG, G2X Energy, Golden Nugget Casino Resort, Greenfield Logistical Solutions, L’Auberge Casino Resort Lake Charles, and many more, supply the region with high-demand jobs, far-reaching visibility for the area, and dollars for the economy.

“The eyes of industry leaders are fixed on Southwest Louisiana, and many of the proposed facilities, as well as companies that have been here for years, rely heavily on channel access,” said Bill Rase, Executive Director of the Port. “Simply put, without the Calcasieu Ship Channel, our region’s economy would not be the talk of the nation.”

The Port is currently ranked as the 13th-largest seaport in the nation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, based on cargo tonnage. But with the expanding operations of existing terminals as well as the addition of proposed facilities, the Port is poised to leap to the top ten.

Over 54 million tons of cargo, such as petroleum and petroleum products, aluminum ingots, and rice are transported via the Calcasieu Ship Channel each year, and 7.5 percent of the nation’s daily fuel consumptions come from refineries along the channel. The next ten years of industry expansion will further define the Port as a leading facilitator of Southwest Louisiana’s economic growth and the nation’s energy boom.

“As our region grows, the Port and ship channel must match this growth. We actively work with industry leaders and regional stakeholders to make sure marine transport is as efficient and safe as possible for those businesses that will depend on it,” said Rase.

Beyond leasing channelside properties for development and taking part in negotiations with potential industrial facilities, the Port serves on behalf of the State of Louisiana as the local sponsor for the channel, which has been the avenue for industry growth for decades.

A Gravitational Pull for Industry and Growth

With the discovery of major natural gas resources in the U.S., a massive surge of industrial projects rose to engage in natural gas liquefaction and exportation, and an efficient pipeline infrastructure in the region that would deliver natural gas sweetened the deal.

“Because of the massive influx of investment coming to the region, the Port and the ship channel are seen as the gateways to the region’s thriving energy corridor,” said Rase. “We have always facilitated economic growth, but now it’s on an even bigger scale.”

The Port owns and operates two marine terminals—the City Docks and Bulk Terminal No. 1—as well as two industrial parks, and Port properties encompass over 200 square miles of prime real estate scattered along the ship channel.

The Port’s positive growth has become a recurring trend year after year, and with more development taking place with proposed facilities, the Port keeps its sight on reinforcing its core services while expanding on-site projects that can benefit tenant companies and ship channel users.

Between 2015 and 2019, the Port’s leadership anticipates investing approximately $190 million in capital improvements with $46.6 million in capital spending occurring in 2015 alone.

The Port will give a nod to its past by rebuilding the historic Wharf and Transit Shed No. 1, the original dock of the Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District built in the 1920s. The rebuilt wharf and storage facility will meet current standards for bigger, heavier cargo, while serving as a reminder of the maritime industry’s rich history in Southwest Louisiana.

New projects for 2015 include construction of an administrative building and new land acquisitions that will expand the Port’s impact further than ever.

Channel Traffic Study: Looking Ahead

Last year’s Regional Impact Study, which was released by the Growth Opportunity (GO) Group and detailed recommendations for smart growth in the region, stated that shipping capacity and channel traffic should expect to steadily increase during the economic boom.

Last year Port of Lake Charles officials released a study by an independent international consulting firm analyzing current and future ship channel vessel traffic.

Deep-draft ship traffic is projected to double over the next ten years, growing from 1,022 to over 2,183 vessels in 2023. The 20-year horizon of the study forecasts 2,249 deep-draft vessels annually in 2033.

After evaluation of the channel’s existing infrastructure and operations, the traffic study found that the channel has the capacity to handle the forecasted traffic increase provided it was properly dredged.

“We can double our ship traffic without a problem, as long as the federal government meets its responsibility to properly maintain the channel,” said Channing Hayden, Director of Navigation and Security for the Port. “So far Congress and the Administration have fallen far short of doing so.”

Dredging the Channel = Economic Success

Multi-billion dollar industrial facilities along the ship channel will count on having a reliable waterway to transport their goods, and the ship channel must be dredged yearly to ensure that it meets the 400-foot-wide and 40-foot-deep federally mandated requirements.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees maintenance for the Calcasieu Ship Channel, added $16 million from discretionary funds provided by Congress to its FY2015 spending plan for the channel’s continued operation and maintenance. The discretionary spending was in addition to the $11.7 million for the channel in the FY15 budget passed by Congress.

The total $27.7 million in FY15 was a slight increase from FY14’s total budget and discretionary allocation of $26.24 million, but far short of the $30 million to $40 million needed annually to properly dredge the channel.

The Corps of Engineers dredges the channel to keep it open to deep-draft ships, and the sediment removed is used as much as possible to restore and nourish nearby wetlands.

“Dredging does two things: it maintains the economy of Southwest Louisiana and the nation and helps the environment by rebuilding our area’s wetlands,” said Hayden.

Preserving the Past and Celebrating the Future

The maritime industry has always been an integral component of Southwest Louisiana’s history and culture. An efficient waterway that would connect Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico would also connect it to a wider, global economy. Lumber and agriculture controlled commerce in the region in the early 19th century, and with it came a demand for easy access to resources across Calcasieu Parish.

The Intracoastal Canal connecting the Calcasieu and Sabine rivers was completed in 1915, and business leaders saw this as an opportunity to open Calcasieu Parish for maritime business. Under provisions of the 1921 state constitution, parish police juries were authorized to fund and initiate public works projects, and by act of the legislature that year, the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury called a bond election to dredge Calcasieu River and Lake. Voters approved $2.75 million to dredge the river to a 30-foot depth and a bottom width of 125 feet.

In 1924, the Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District was authorized by Louisiana Legislature, and with it came the authority to call bond elections, to raise funds for the construction, operation, and maintenance of port facilities, and to establish a Board of Commissioners appointed by the governor. On April 2, 1926, the S.S. Sewalls Point was the first oceangoing vessel to bring cargo to the newly authorized port.

An even wider and deeper channel was in demand as local industry continued to boom, and Congress appropriated $9.2 million for channel dredging and construction of the Calcasieu jetties in 1938. As a result, the Calcasieu Ship Channel was dredged from Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico 34 miles south, and the channel reached a depth of 33 feet and a width of 250 feet. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the channel was expanded to 40-foot-deep and 400-foot-wide, the current federal mandate.

Just as it did at the turn of the 20th century, industry is booming again, and the demand for efficient access to the Gulf remains strong. The Port of Lake Charles keeps a weathered eye on the horizon to stay ahead of future trends and maritime needs.

The channel is the region’s life-giving pulse as well as our connection to an expansive worldwide economy, and the Port acts as our ambassador on the global stage.

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