In August 1914, a man-made waterway within Panama, stretching 48 miles, joined the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
To accommodate the growing size of ships and to introduce new trade routes, the Panama Canal Authority began a $5.25 billion expansion project in 2007 which was completed in June 2016.
On Friday, Panama Canal Authority CEO Jorge L. Quijano spoke to students and faculty about the process, and the canal’s future.
While the Panama Canal plays a critical role in international trade, it also affects the Beaumont area and neighboring areas, Quijano, a Lamar University alumnus, said.
“Beaumont has a lot of military traffic,” he said. “Some of it goes through the canal, some of it doesn’t. The canal manages all of the different segments and a lot of it comes from this area.”
Texas and Louisiana make up a large amount of the United States’ seaborne grain exports.
“We handle, at the Panama Canal, 31 percent of the grain exports of the United States,” Quijano said. “That’s quite a bit.”
Liquefied natural gas, for example, is developing significantly within the area, Quijano said.
“That has become a major trade commodity through the Panama Canal,” he said. “That’s one link that we didn’t have before last year when we opened up the expansion. Now we’ve also seen a significant trade, and that’s coming anywhere between Houston and Louisiana — it’s the LPG trade, Liquefied Petroleum Gas.”
Currently, mid-sized cargo ships, called Panamax, are the largest ships able to pass through the canal. With the expansion comes the opportunity for larger vessels.
“The container carriers will be changed to New Panamax vessels,” Quijano said. “In other words, the larger size of vessels can go through the Panama Canal now with the expansion and that will give more capacity for exports from the area.”
The canal utilizes fresh water and improvements to the water supply were made by building water-saving basins during the expansion.
“We decided three was the optimal, because the amount of time required was too excessive for a fourth water-saving basin, and the amount of water that’s going to be saved was minor,” Quijano said. “Right now, it’s saving 60 percent of the water.”
During his talk, Quijano showed images of the canal throughout its history. He said the early pictures show a very different canal.
“It’s not the same canal of 1914 — we’ve made major improvements to the anal over time,” he said. “We feel the Canal had the opportunity to grow, and not just come out at a point where there was no more growth in the future.
“We had no choice. We either invest in it so that we had a future, or you just say, ‘OK, we’re gonna milk the cow until the end, and then the cow’s gonna die.”
In two-and-a-half years, seven-year term as CEO will end. Further improvements will be in the hands of the next engineers.
“By that time, I would have been 43 years in service on the canal, and that’s enough,” he said. “There’s a lot of need in the world for engineers. There’s high demand in (Panama).”
Quijano continues to mentor engineering students and is hopeful for the future.
“We believe that we need to inspire people to stay in engineering, because engineering is not easy,” he said. “People, sometimes they drop out because they feel that they can’t do it. But you can do it.
“I think it’s important that, if we have the time, we can encourage people. And sometimes, it’s simple.”
Quijano cited Andrea Llamas-Perez, who graduated from Lamar with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in Spring 2013 and who interned on the expansion in Panama shortly after graduation.
“I put her right into working in the locks project,” he said. “She was put right in the middle of the biggest project going on in the world at that point in time. (It was) a very tricky project, and she learned a lot.”
Quijano said enjoys coaching students and encourages them to explore creative solutions.
“They would come to the office and bounce ideas and bounce things, so I think it doesn’t matter what school you’re coming from,” he said. “I will do this for Lamar, but I will also do it for anybody else that comes into my office. That’s the normal way that I operate — I try to give time to people.
“And I know, sometime down the road, they’ll appreciate that I did that. It’s really not important that they appreciate it now, but I know that the guidance that I can give, it’s going to be useful sometime down the road. I give it with the best intentions, very plain and simple, and all of the people that I have dealt with that have come to me, they normally do better after, because they normally listen like I listen to them about their problems.”
Quijano is focused on the marketing aspect of the Canal.
“At the end, you can build things, and if you can’t commercialize it, then you might as well dump it,” he said. “That’s the most important part of it, making good use of something that you built. So, I will continue to work with the kids that want to be counselled and helped and guided to the next level.”
Quijano’s advice to the students he interacts with is simple — don’t be too concerned about the future.
“You need to have an idea of where you want to go, but you work on the present, and that’s what’s going to make you strong,” he said. “If you’re trying just to push yourself to get that next job, most-likely, you won’t get it.
“What you have to do is do good work of the work that you have been assigned, be creative, be self-motivated in what you’re being tasked to do. You can always do more. And if you can do a little bit more every time on the jobs that you’ve been assigned, your boss will notice — somebody else will notice.
“The future is there for those that work hard on the present.”
UP multimedia editor