CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The laid-back hinterlands surrounding the headquarters of the Corpus Christi Port Authority, located downtown in the midsize Texas Gulf Coast city, belie the port’s remarkable transformation as both the U.S.’ largest energy export gateway and in total revenue tonnage.

Those top rankings aside, Corpus is an easy-going city a 208-mile drive away from Houston, likely more known for any number of tourist attractions from its Texas State Aquarium and the Art Museum of South Texas to its Gulf Coast beaches.

But in the background of the quiet Corpus downtown, the city is energized—especially as it relates to the movement of oil, gas and other commodities.

Corpus’ port has been in operation since 1926. Nearly 100 years later, it’s a large industrial energy hub and gateway to global markets. The port is a landowner, land developer and landlord.

Importantly, the port is also strategically located near major Texas crude oil and natural gas production where it has 16 public oil docks and takes on crude oil, refined products, LNG and LPG.

The port has five multi-purpose cargo docks for break bulk cargo, and it boasts being the largest port to handle wind energy components on the U.S. Gulf Coast (USGC), where it has six near-dock laydown yards.

The port also features 45 acres of open storage space with direct access to deepwater, railways and highways where it has two bulk docks: one with a 34-ft draft and another with a 47-ft draft. The port has connectivity with three North American Class-1 railroads and two major interstate highways.

In 2022, the most recent year that full data is available, the port boasted 7,736 vessel calls, contributing positive economic impacts, including state and local taxes.

That compares to approximately 6,843 vessel calls in 2021, spokespersons with the Port Authority said during a recent tour of its facilities.

In terms of its international ranking, the port boasted the third largest oil exports in 2022 when it moved 1.94 MMbbl/d. That year, the port only trailed the Ras Tanura port in Saudi Arabia (6.5 MMbbl/d) and the Basrah Oil Terminal in Iraq (3.45 MMbbl/d), according to official Port Authority data.

Top 5 for Crude Oil Exports
The U.S. is in the top 5 for crude oil exports. (Source: Port of Corpus Christi)

Houston, often called the energy capital of the U.S., was for decades the undisputed oil capital of the Petroleum Administration for Defense District, or PADD III.  A change in legislation began to shift energy supplies through Corpus. The lifting of an oil export trade ban in late 2015 saw waterborne exports soar across the USGC, and Corpus was the recipient of the bulk of the growth, Wood Mackenzie said in a 2023 report.

Corpus has attracted midstream investment to open export markets to accommodate rising supplies from the Permian Basin. That has sparked large-scale infrastructure development “in the form of better dock capacity, inbound pipe capacity from the Permian and storage capacity has catapulted Corpus Christi into prime position for tidewater access for U.S. barrels,” according to Wood Mackenzie.

Nearing the century mark

The port’s mission is simple: to remain the energy dockyards of the Americas.

In that vein, the port, home to a 36-mile channel, has commenced the last part of an infrastructure project to both widen and deepen the channel. When completed, it will have a depth of 54 ft Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW), up from 47 ft, and a new width of 530 ft, with additional barge shelves also being constructed. This compares to an original dredged depth of 25 ft and a width of 200 ft when it first opened.

The improved channel will allow the port to fully load Suezmax class vessels, reducing the need to top off vessels offshore and the associated ship traffic and vessel emissions, according to port authority statements. Berths in the port currently range from 246 ft to 1,000 ft.

Phases one and two of the channel improvement project have concluded and the third phase is estimated to be completed in early 2024. The fourth and final phase of the project is slated for completion in early 2025, according to the Port Authority.

Texas’ LNG capital

In general, rising U.S. energy production in the past decade has helped the country solidify its energy security and become a net energy exporter. But, Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine allowed the U.S. to emerge as a reliable supplier of LNG to Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.

Much of the success is tied to Texas-based gas producers and LNG suppliers, including Freeport LNG in Freeport, Texas, and Cheniere Energy, located in Corpus.

Cheniere’s 1,000+ acre Corpus Christi Liquefaction facility (CCL) in the Corpus Christi Bay is within sight of the entrance into the Port of Corpus Christi. Cheniere’s facility is home to three LNG trains with a total liquefaction capacity of 15 million tonnes per annum. The company’s Corpus Christi Liquefaction Stage 3 (CCL Stage 3) brownfield expansion project is set to sail by year-end 2024, according to company statements on its website.

With Cheniere’s contributions, the port ranked number two in 2022 in terms of U.S. LNG exports, when it moved an estimated 808 Bcf of gas, according to port authority data.

The most recent data shows the port moved 52 million tons (MMton) of goods in third-quarter 2023, up 7.7% compared to third-quarter 2022. This was the sixth consecutive quarter of record growth, and the first time in history that goods moved through the channel surpassed the 50-Mmton mark, according to Port Authority.

The record tonnage was primarily due to higher oil exports, which reached 32.4 Mmton in third-quarter 2023, as well as slightly higher volumes of LNG, petroleum products and agricultural commodities.

Wind parks and hydrogen

Wind parks with towering turbines stretch as far as the eye can see in the areas surrounding the port. Four wind parks—Harbor Wind, Midway and Papalote Creek I and II—boast a combined 248 turbines with a total rated capacity of 551.8 megawatts, according to the U.S. Wind Turbine Database (USWTDB).

But there are many more wind farms around Corpus.

map of Corpus Christi wind farms
Map of Corpus Christi wind farms. (Source: The United States Wind Turbine Database)

While the port’s past has been tied mainly to oil and gas, its future will increasingly see renewables growing in importance.

The port’s Horizons Clean Hydrogen Hub (HCH2) and Trans Permian H2Hub have already submitted a full application through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Clean Energy Demonstration Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs Program.

The integrated hydrogen hub concept forms part of a roadmap that will diversify and decarbonize the port. It also creates a unified framework to leverage existing infrastructure and commercial connections between West Texas energy production and the port, according to port authority spokespersons.

The port also aims to offer centralized carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) options, the spokespersons say.

The plan includes actions to cultivate CCUS opportunities, identification of alternatives for CO2 delivery infrastructure, while also leasing port-owned pore space for CO2 injection and storage.