Although the timing fits perfectly with the liquefaction projects under construction or proposed on the US Gulf Coast and along the eastern seaboard, the idea that LNG vessels would be transiting the canal was not on any radar screen when the expansion was first conceived. Imports of LNG into the US actually peaked in 2007 at 16 MMt, largely sourced from exporters in the Atlantic basin with no need for the canal.
The major impetus behind the expansion was to attract larger container vessels, allowing Panama to compete with rival offerings from the Suez Canal. Now, however, the 48-mile artery connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans promises to become an inter-basin route for US export projects.
The new locks will be 55 meters wide, representing a significant increase from the existing dimensions of 32.4 meters. This aspect of the expansion is what has gained the most attention from the LNG industry, as the canal’s current beam restrictions prevent all but a handful of older 18,000- 50,000 m3 vessels from transiting the waterway. Once complete, the expansion will allow ships with a length overall of 366 meters, a beam of 49 meters and a draft of 15.2 meters. Only the Qclass vessels in Qatar’s fleet will still be too wide to transit the canal after it is expanded, explains Poten.
While tolling fees are expected to be finalized in the first half of next year, under the current structure a 173,000 m3 membrane vessel would pay $382,440 for the laden voyage while the ballast leg would cost $301,500. This equates to a charge of around 18 cent/MMBtu for transiting the canal. It is also nearly 20% less than the roundtrip through Suez, which costs some $830,000 for a similar sized vessel.
The trip from the US Gulf Coast to Japan and back through Panama will take around 49 days, shaving 26 days off the roundtrip voyage compared to going through Suez. A special ballast rate will be offered for shippers that decide to do a roundtrip, although this will require use of the same vessel on both legs and the ballast transit must be completed within 60 days of the laden passage.
However, a number of existing Moss ships will be too wide to transit the Panama Canal even after expansion. Many of the 145,000 m3 to 148,000 m3 Moss vessels have beams just over 49 meters. Forward visibility could also be a problem for some Moss ships. Although it is unlikely that any vessel that fits the LOA, beam and draft specifications will be refused passage, extra costs may be incurred for additional escort tugs and pilots if visibility is an issue.
Poten's Monthly LNG Report adds that the authority has not concluded if liquid petroleum gas ships will be in the same category as LNG. Only a half dozen or so Very Large Gas Carriers can transit the canal now, but this will change with the expansion. With LPG production rising in the US, exports are expected to ramp up sharply, and citing expert sources, Poten's add that once the canal is expanded, there will be a lot more LPG exports going out of the US Gulf Coast to the Far East.