Crude exports from the Port of Corpus Christi in South Texas are continuing to boom even amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and projects and enhancements appear poised to solidify its dominance along the Gulf Coast.

Record tonnage was moved in the first quarter, according to the port’s Omar Garcia, chief external affairs officer. Although oil production has declined in nearby basins and exports have declined since then, volumes continue to come in strong.

RBN Energy LLC estimated that Corpus export volumes through 2018 and the first half of 2019 averaged about 500,000 b/d, surpassing Houston and Beaumont, which is on the Houston Ship Channel. Crude exports from the Corpus/Ingleside area topped 1 million b/d for the first time in September, and have stayed around 1-1.5 million b/d ever since.

The gains are traced mostly to the Cactus II and Epic oil pipelines that move supply south from the Permian Basin, as well as the Gray Oak Pipeline, which entered service on April 1, according to RBN. The massive expansion in pipelines heading toward South Texas, as well as major investments in shipping facilities, has elevated the Port of Corpus Christi to the top spot in crude export hubs, a feat projected a year ago by Wood Mackenzie.

Deemed an essential business, port has continued to operate amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but management took a “conservative approach” and “exercised austerity measures” to curb nonessential costs, according to Garcia. “As our customers trimmed budgets, we trimmed ours. However, we are in a strong financial position that will enable us to weather the storm.”

Buckeye Partners LP is expected to start loading crude ships for export in the coming months at its South Texas Gateway terminal at the mouth of Corpus Christi Bay, joining a long line of terminals that have started operating in the last few years. Pin Oak Corpus Christi LLC received its first vessel in April at the newly commissioned Oil Dock 14, which is capable of loading a Suezmax-class vessel at a rate of up to 960,000 b/d. Pin Oak since its startup has exported a total of 3.4 million bbl on five Aframaxes, according to RBN analyst Housley Carr. Each Aframax can transport up to 750,000 bbl.

The joint venture between Plains All American Pipeline LP and Enterprise Products Partners LP, Eagle Ford Terminals, loaded its first ship last September and in the last four months of 2019, loaded almost 6 million bbl of crude onto seven vessels, Carr said. In 2020 to date, the terminal has exported close to 13 million bbl on 18 vessels, including six Suezmaxes, which can transport up to 1 million bbl each.

Meanwhile, the Epic Marine terminal started exporting in December when the first of two docks started operations. A total of 2.0 million bbl was loaded into three Aframax tankers at the West Dock in December and to date in 2020, nearly 13.5 million bbl has been loaded onto 20 vessels.

The greenfield East Dock, now under construction and scheduled to come online in the third quarter, is to be able to accommodate up to a Suezmax-class vessel and have a loading capacity of 960,000 b/d.

Meanwhile, the Port of Corpus Christi is moving ahead with improvements of its own. Garcia said the second phase of the Channel Improvement Project (CIP) is expected to begin in the next two months. Callan Marine Ltd. has been tapped to carry out this phase of the project, which would increase the channel depth from minus 47 feet Mean Lower Low Water (MLLW) to minus 54 feet MLLW, and widen the channel to 530 feet with an additional 400 feet of barge shelves.

The first phase of the project was completed in March and included the deepening and widening of the channel from the Gulf of Mexico to Harbor Island. The upcoming phase would span from Harbor Island to 2.7 miles past the La Quinta Junction, including Ingleside.

“As the largest export gateway for U.S. produced energy destined for global demand markets, a deeper and wider ship channel will solidify the competitiveness of American energy on the world stage,” Port CEO Sean Strawbridge said.

The estimated completion for this phase of the CIP is early 2022, with improvements to Ingleside by fourth quarter of 2021.

“We are working to ensure that all critical infrastructure projects continue with minimal impact to our customers,” Garcia said.