Delay to Panama Canal expansion poses global energy trade risk

Wood Mackenzie expects the recent cost overrun disputes around the canal expansion to be resolved with limited disruption due to the significance of the Canal to global trade.

Significant disruptions will crimp profitability for US LNG producers, create a tighter LNG shipping market and affect the US Gulf Coast petrochemical industry.

"Given the enormous strategic and financial importance of the Canal to Panama, we expect the gridlock to be resolved," says Andrew Buckland, Senior LNG Shipping Analyst at Wood Mackenzie. "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 will benefit users depending on the position of their ports in relation to the 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 realize 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.

Analysis by Wood Mackenzie shows US coal producers to benefit from completion of the canal due to further delays; issues for coal, gas and oil trading are:

Coal Industry

  • If the canal expansion is further delayed, Australia and Canada could grow its market share in the Asia-Pacific region, delaying the opportunity for US Gulf coal suppliers to benefit from the expansion.

  • US Gulf coal suppliers can achieve savings of about US$4.72/ton ($/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. 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 tons, 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 cuts 6.2 days and can help to realize savings of US$0.89/t assuming time charter rates of $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 the long way round 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 onstream.

Oil Industry

  • No impact on Venezuelan crude exports to China is anticipated. Trade will continue to be more cost effective in Very Large Container Carriers (VLCCs) that are too big to fit through the expanded canal.

  • Supports higher product prices in Chile and exposes US exports to higher shipping costs.

  • Supports product exports via alternate routes.

From the Archive