Men's Breakfast Report, December 2007
The Men’s Breakfast Group met on Saturday, December 8th with Ravi Singhania, member of the Navigation District Board and former vice president of BASF.
Ravi was born in India in a textile producing family. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and then in chemical engineering in India. He didn’t want to start work in his family’s business so he came to the United States and enrolled in the masters program in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois. There he met his future wife. Not wanting to return to India, he persuaded Dow-Badische to hire him since his family was a major customer of theirs. He worked his way up in the company and became plant superintendent, eventually being transferred to New Jersey and made a vice president. Early on he decided that he wanted to remain in the Brazosport area. He married his wife in 1970 and became a citizen in 1974.
He has tried to give back to the community in various ways. He has been on the college board and active with the Brazosport College Foundation and Habitat for Humanity.
He got interested in the Navigation district because of his work with BASF. When Dow-Badische built its plant it got its ammonia from an ammonia plant on the Dow site. Eventually their needs outstripped Dow’s capacity and they were required to ship in ammonia by tank car. The ammonia spill in Houston, which injured Sherry White, a former choir director of our church, among many others, persuaded BASF that they should not be bringing in ammonia by land. Also, ammonia could be made cheaply in areas like the Middle East where natural gas was almost free. BASF therefore wanted to buy 25 acres from the port to build a terminal and facilities for importing ammonia. At this time Freeport-McMoRan, successor to Freeport Sulfur Company, wanted to sell its 6000 acres in the Freeport area for $24 million dollars and gave the port 90 days to come up with the money. The port had $20 million but could not raise the extra $4 million in the time required because of legal constraints. The 25 acres that BASF needed was not worth $4 million so a deal was made to sell 75 acres to BASF for $4 million to enable the port to buy the 6000 acres which are the foundation of the present growth of the port.
Ravi wanted to run for a position on the Navigation district board two years ago but was unable to because of his father-in-law’s health problems. The Navigation board is set up so members run at large but must reside in specific districts. The only seat that he could run for this year was the seat held by Tobey Davenport. The next time a seat would be open for which he could run would be in four years. Since he did not want to wait that long he decided to run against Tobey. Ravi said that he did not have anything against Tobey.
The question of conflicts between the port and the city of Freeport was brought up. Ravi said that the port and city should try to work together and that each needed the other. He said that he had nothing to do with the de-annexation bills that Dennis Bonnen sponsored and got enacted since he was not on the board at the time. He did say that Dennis did not do this on his own but at the instigation of people from the port. However, he did not disavow the bills.
The next point of discussion was about the possible sale of a portion of the port to a Spanish company. Ravi said that he believed that private enterprise should do as much as possible at the port. Several other portions of the port are owned or leased by various private companies. Dow and BASF are prime examples. American Rice is another example. Ravi said that the American Rice lease is particularly unfavorable to the port, but was negotiated when the port was hungry for business and had to offer generous terms to get it. As far as being foreign, with globalization ownership of most companies is highly dispersed and it is difficult to say who actually controls a company, and it doesn’t really matter. The original plan for the containership crane and dock was to finance them with general obligation bonds, which were turned down by the voters. The Spanish company is the next option. If agreement can not be reached with the Spanish company it may still be built but using revenue bonds.
The channel between the jetties will have to be widened and deepened to allow larger ships to use the harbor. A wider channel will also allow night time operation which will eliminate the need for ships to wait outside the harbor until daylight. The faster turnaround will make Freeport more competitive. Under new federal law, the federal government will only pay for half the cost of harbor improvements instead of the previous three quarters. This will raise the cost to local taxpayers but will make Freeport more competitive over most other ports since our distance to deep water is much less than most other ports, such as Houston and Galveston.
The new Freeport marina and the Surfside stacked storage facility will increase the amount of small boat traffic that want to go through the jetties to the ocean. This may cause congestion and interference with commercial shipping, especially where the ship channel meets the Intracoastal Waterway. The Coast Guard requirement that the jetties be closed to other traffic and a wide exclusion zone be established around liquefied natural gas tankers may be especially onerous. Local authorities will be sympathetic and aware of the problems but regulations could come from unaware and unconcerned bureaucrats in Washington that could put a crimp in the economy. The docked tankers will be essentially in the Intracoastal Waterway and if the canal is restricted for the entire time the tanker is in port the entire Gulf Coast economy could be affected. Ravi thought that the restrictions were primarily for safety, but sailors in the group informed him that most of the restrictions were from Homeland Security because of fears of another Cole incident. The problems were not resolved, but Ravi is now at least aware of them.
As usual the men had an informative discussion and a good breakfast. The next meeting will be Saturday, January 12, 2008 with father Jim Boucher of Saint Mary’s as the featured guest. All men are invited.