Safeguarding Ports is Key to Homeland Security & Prosperity
Often, homeland security is thought of in terms of protecting the physical borders that run between the United States and our neighbors. However, we must not overlook the critical importance of maritime ports to our nation’s safety. Both because they serve as gateways into the United States and because they facilitate much of our nation’s international trade, American ports are potentially vulnerable spots that must be carefully guarded.
The U.S. maritime transportation system is a vital asset to our national economy, and it employs over 13 million American workers. There are more than 300 ports dotted along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts of the United States. Some 2 billion tons of domestic, import and export cargo pass along their docks and through their waterways each year. This commercial activity contributes to $742 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.
In Texas, there are 28 seaports from Houston and Galveston down to Brownsville, including three of the busiest ports in the United States. Our state’s economy depends on the viability of this maritime transport system. Each year, over 500 million tons of cargo move through Texas seaports. This flow of commerce keeps more than a million Texans employed and accounts for over $180 billion in revenue. The products of Texas farms and ranches pass through these portals as they are shipped to marketplaces across the globe. Ports also facilitate the import and export of many other products vital to Texas’ economy, including petroleum and chemical supplies, electronics and machinery, dairy products, fertilizers, and more.
The Port of Houston, a 25 mile complex comprised of the Port Authority of Houston and more than 150 private industrial companies, ranks first in foreign waterborne tonnage and leads the nation in U.S. imports. It also houses one of the world’s largest petrochemical complexes as well as part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Houston shipping channel businesses account for almost 800,000 jobs and have an economic impact of nearly $120 billion.
Because these ports are so valuable, we must ensure their security. One terrorist incident at a U.S. port could result in a significant loss of American life, impact surrounding coastal communities, and catastrophically affect our nation’s economy. The Brookings Institution recently estimated that if terrorists detonated a weapon of mass destruction at an American port, besides the devastating loss of life, it would cost the U.S. economy a crippling $1 trillion.
One important way we are working to keep seaports safe is through the Port Security Grant Program, which helps our nation’s ports assess security risks and make preparations for emergencies or attacks. Since 2002, Texas has received over $200 million in competitive Port Security Grants, primarily to secure petrochemical facilities.
In 2006, I cosponsored the SAFE Port Act, sweeping port security legislation that the full Senate passed and was signed into law. The bill authorized random inspection of containers, established minimum standards and procedures for security containers in transit to the United States, and implemented an improved container targeting system. I also added an amendment, which became law, to add hundreds more Customs and Border Protection officers to inspect incoming shipments.
On September 30, 2010, many of the critical provisions that have helped American ports operate safely for the past four years will expire. As the senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, I have begun work with my colleagues to reauthorize those expiring provisions and explore new ways to bolster the security of our nation’s seaports. As we undertake this critical task, I hope we can work cooperatively with the Department of Homeland Security, including the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, with state and local governments, and with key industry stakeholders to put systems in place that will preserve ports’ security and viability.
American seaports are essential to our long-term economic growth. We must ensure that they have the resources to meet the homeland security challenges of the 21st century.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas and is the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.