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Impact of Panama Canal delays on LNG and coal

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

Wood Mackenzie expects lengthy delays to the anticipated Panama Canal expansion to impact the coal, liquefied natural gas and petrochemical industries.

The research firm expects the recent cost overrun disputes surrounding the canal expansion to be resolved with limited disruption, due to the significance of the Panama Canal to global trade.

Significant disruptions will limit profitability for US LNG producers, create a tighter shipping market and affect the US Gulf Coast petrochemical industry. On the other hand, US coal producers are set to benefit considerably from the expansion once it is complete.


Commenting on the impact of the delays, Andrew Buckland, Senior LNG Shipping Analyst at Wood Mackenzie, said: "Given the enormous strategic and financial importance of the Canal to Panama, we expect the gridlock to be resolved. If the delays last 6 –12 months, it will have limited impact, as trade will carry on much as it does now, but further delays threaten the investments of a significant number of groups that are set to benefit from expanded capacity on the waterway."

The expansion of the canal will benefit users depending on the position of their ports in relation to the Panama Canal, particularly the US, whose cargo accounts for 65% of total cargo moved through the canal.

"When completed, US coal suppliers will see some of the greatest benefits from the expansion as they will realise substantial cost and time savings, even when compared with Colombian and Venezuela suppliers. The shortening of the route to Asian markets will result in greater opportunities," added Jaime Correal, Senior Coal Markets Analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

Possible impact of further delays include:

Coal Industry

  • If the canal expansion is further delayed, Australia and Canada could grow its market share in the Asia Pacific, delaying the opportunity for US Gulf coal suppliers to benefit from the expansion.
  • US Gulf coal suppliers can achieve savings of approximately US $4.72/t on ocean freight rates using capesize vessels through the Panama Canal, when compared with a routing of the same size vessel via the Cape of Good Hope and Sunda Straits. Using the canal will save 9.7 days and the cost savings will increase trade of thermal and metallurgical coal from the US to Japan, Vietnam and eventually China via US Gulf Coast ports.
  • US suppliers will become more efficient into countries located in the Pacific Coast of South America, especially Chile where Colombian producers have traditionally dominated the coal market.
  • Although the expanded canal will accommodate capesize vessels, cargo weight will be limited to less than 140 000 payable load t, which will restrict the passage of fully loaded vessels.
  • US coal exports from the US East coast to China will lose the opportunity of capturing additional market share in China and South America.
  • The trip to China from the East coast via the Panama Canal is shortened by 6.2 days, and could save US $0.89/t assuming time charter rates of US$ 60 000/day for a capesize vessel.

LNG Industry

  • LNG is not currently traded through the Panama Canal as most LNG vessels are too wide to fit through the locks. The expansion project will allow all but the very largest LNG ships to use the Panama Canal.
  • A delay until early 2016 will impact the first US Gulf LNG exports from Sabine Pass. This will impose a higher shipping cost to target markets in Asia, as ships will need to take a longer route via the Cape of Good Hope. However, the differential between US and Asian gas prices will still make the trade profitable and initial volumes will be small as the project ramps up.
  • The LNG shipping market will be tighter (with higher spot-market freight rates) than it would otherwise have been, as volumes from Trinidad and the USA will have to travel a further distance to Asia. The LNG shipping market is expected to weaken between now and 2016 as new ships are delivered to the market before new capacity comes on-stream.

Oil Industry

  • Wood Mackenzie does not expect any impact on Venezuelan crude exports to China. Trade will continue to be more cost effective in Very Large Container Carriers (VLCCs) that are too big to fit through the expanded canal.
  • The delays support higher product prices in Chile and exposes US exports to higher shipping costs.
  • They may also support product exports via alternate routes.

Adapted from press release by Katie Woodward

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