Wood Mackenzie: Delays to Panama Canal Expansion Will Affect LNG Trade

Wood Mackenzie expects the recent cost overrun disputes around the Panama 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 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.

Wood Mackenzie’s cross-sector analysis highlights the possible impact of further delays for LNG trade:

  • 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 on-stream.
Press Release, February 25, 2014

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