An image if a containership at sea outside of the port of Corpus Christi.

Texas’ Moment: How Texan Ports Lead US Trade

Image by Joshua J. Cotten for Unsplash

Texan Ports are leading the US when it comes to imports and exports. In recent years, data has suggested that, as the US prepares to restructure its supply chains away from China, and makes large bets on oil, Texas found itself at the epicenter of global supply chains. And, it’s time we started noticing this trend.

Looking more closely at trade patterns in the US, we notice that Texas is growing much faster than rival states and the country as a whole, at least when it comes to containerized trade as measured in TEUs. Using data from our State of North American Ports Report we were able to estimate overall growth rates in the US, Texas, and California—home to the two largest container ports in the country; Los Angeles and Long Beach. In doing so, we found that, as early as 2019, Texan ports were already growing much faster than the national average and even the state of California. After a slight hiccup in 2020, likely resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Texan ports soon maintained their lead in growth over national trends as well as Californian ports.

(Data from Auba)

Most of the growth, in fact, is coming from just two Texan Ports: the Port of Houston, and the Port of Corpus Christi. Although we found that the growth in each came from different forms of goods handled.

On the one hand, the Port of Corpus Christi has grown into a crucial artery for oil trade around the world—even becoming the third largest exporter of crude oil globally. This, in great part, is a result of the steady growth of US oil exports, which has risen from just 2.35 million barrels of crude per day in 2015 to 9.58 million barrels per day in 2022. As the US has grown into an oil exporter, Corpus Christi has risen to the task as the main exit route for said oil. Between 2018 and 2023, total tons handled in the port grew from 84.7 million to 184.3 million—that’s a 117.38% growth rate in six years. Since the port mostly handles almost exclusively oil as cargo, it falls far behind in terms of containerized trade. However, that is of little importance considering the large amount of cargo it processes each year, making it the fastest growing port in the US over the last decade, with an overall growth rate of 238.3% since 2013.

Millions of Tons Handled by the Port of Corpus Christi (2018-2023)

A line graph showing the number of tons handled at the Port of Corpus Chirsti between 2018 and 2023.

(Data from Auba)

The Port of Houston, on the other hand, has seen an equally significant growth in recent months. Most recently, it made headlines in May when monthly TEUs handled grew by a shocking 21% compared to the previous year. This, however, is not a stand alone event. Across 2023, there hasn’t been a single month where annual growth in TEUs handled at Houstin didn’t surpass 4%—in fact, in three out of the last five months, Houston’s growth rate has surpassed 10% annually. All of this while the share of empty TEUs as a share of all cargo handled steadily decreased from over 25% in the later half of 2021 to just 18.8% last May.

TEUs Handled by the Port of Houston (2021-2024)

A line graph showing the number of empty and loaded TEUs handled at the port of Houston between 2021 and 2024.

(Data from the Port of Houston)

Initially, we could explain the rise of containerized trade in Houston as a function of the booming oil industry in Texan Ports—the same force leading to the growing prominence of Corpus Christi. And, to some degree, that is certainly the case. If we look at the leading imports at the Port of Houston it is true that hardware and construction equipment (likely related to the oil industry) is the largest category in TEUs (15.3% of all imports). However, Food and Drink 12.6%) follows soon after, and is not far above Retail Consumer Goods (12%) and Furniture (11.6%). This likely suggests that there are forces at play in Texas larger than oil and gas. As the US continues to shift its attention away from China and towards Mexico through nearshoring, California ports could lose dominance and lead way to a growing Texan ports system.

Leading Import Categories for the Port of Houston (2017-2021)

A line graph showing the amount of TEUs imported through the Port of Houston by category between 2017 and 2021.

(Data from the Port of Houston)

The above is even more interesting when considering that Texas has far more ports than Corpus Christi and Houston. In fact, it has 21 more ports: nine deep water ports and 12 shallow water ports. All this suggests that we might be seeing the beginning of Texas’ prominence in commerce. While, over the last couple of decades, the US East Coast has dominated trade during an era of Asian prominence, it might soon be Texas’ moment to shine.