Although articulated tug-barges are used for transporting a variety of cargoes — there’s even a large ATB dredge currently under construction — the predominant use is for packing petroleum products. 

Crowley Maritime invested around $1 billion in a decade-long program that built 17 155,000- to 330,000-bbl. ATBs with a total capacity of about 3.4 million bbls. All have been under charter since they were delivered. Crowley is not currently adding to its ATB fleet, but the company is having four new 330,000-bbl. product tankers built to go with the two it already has, with options for four more.

Meanwhile, other companies like Kirby, Bouchard Transportation, and MoranTowing are quickly adding to their ATB fleets, and Harley Marine Services is also getting into the game.

The motivation, of course, is the dramatic growth of domestic oil and gas production, especially from shale deposits in Texas, North Dakota and several other states, as well as Canada. Oil companies have product to move, from crude to refined, and they’re scrambling to further develop all forms of transportation, from pipelines to rail cars to barges and tankers. To move the products, the barges and tankers must be U.S.-flagged Jones Act tonnage.

In an interview last year with the Jacksonville (Fla.) Business Journal, Crowley senior vice president Rob Grune said, “The whole energy structure in the U.S. has changed, and it’s changing really fast. The U.S. has been a net importer of crude oil for as long as I can remember, and that crude oil is now domestic. It’s an oil boom.”

That oil boom is now rippling into a shipbuilding boom. Sal Guarino, one of the partners at naval architects Guarino & Cox, said, “We have never been so busy in our lives.” He said current projects include a 100,000- and 110,000-bbl. barge, two 150,000-, two 155,000-, two 185,000- and two 250,000-bbl barges. All are for ATBs. On the ATB tug side, Guarino & Cox is working on four 10,000-hp ATB tugs and two 6,000-hp ATB tugs. 

“That’s a total of 1,690,000 barrels of capacity and 52,000 horsepower in tugs,” said Guarino. “So our little shop is all ass and elbows right now, to put it bluntly. We’re also doing some inland stuff, too, believe it or not.”

One of Guarino & Cox’s clients is Kirby Ocean Transport, Houston, the nation’s largest tank-barge operator. With utilization of its current coastal fleet in the 90%-95% range, the company, which recently added two new bulk-product ATBs, now has four new tank-barge ATBs in the works. Two are from Bay Shipbuilding, Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and two are underway at Nichols Brothers Boat Builders and Gunderson Marine on the West Coast. The two at Bay Ship will have 155,000-bbl. capacities and be pushed by 6,000-hp tugs, all being built in Sturgeon Bay. The first unit is scheduled for delivery in late 2016 and the second in early-to-mid-2017.

At the same time, Nichols Brothers in Freeland, Wash., is building a pair of 136'×44'×19'/10,000-hp ATB tugs for Kirby that will be mated with two 155,000-bbl. tank barges being built by Gunderson in Portland, Ore. The tugs will be powered by EMD engines with Reintjes gears turning fixed-pitch propellers. Intercon is providing the coupler system. The first tug will be completed in May 2015 and the second in the first half of 2016. 

Bay Shipbuilding is also under contract with Moran in New Canaan, Conn., for the construction of three ATB tank barges — two are 150,000 bbls. and the other will be 110,000 bbls. In addition, the yard will also build two ATB tugs for Moran, one 6,000 hp and one 5,300 hp. 

Melville, N.Y.-based Bouchard is also adding equipment to its ATB tank-barge fleet. VT Halter Marine, Pascagoula, Miss., is currently constructing a pair of 250,000-bbl. ATB barges with 10,000-hp twin-screw tugs. The barges will measure 625'×91'×47'. The first unit is scheduled for delivery in mid-2015 and the second in early 2016. 

In late May, Bouchard took delivery of the 112'×35'×17'/4,000-hp ATB tug Denise A. Bouchard from VT Halter, and in early August, the company announced that it would build two more ATB tugs at VT Halter, both 6,000 hp. To be named Bouchard Boys and Evening Light, the tugs will measure 130'×38'×22' and will be equipped with Intercon couplers. Delivery is expected in January 2016 and May 2016. All three tugs will be coupled with existing Bouchard ATB barges.



The newest entry into the ATB market is Harley Marine in Seattle. Harley Franco’s various subsidiaries have been operating tank barges almost from the company’s beginning, about 20 years ago, and now the company is expanding with four new ATBs. 

Three of the four will have capacities of 83,800 bbls. of petroleum, both crude and refined. “We hope to haul a lot of the Bakken crude, as well as oil from Canada,” said Franco. The 422'×77'×27' barges, the first of which will be chartered to Tesoro and the second to ConocoPhillips, were designed by Elliott Bay Design Group, Seattle, and will be connected to the tugs with Articouple FRC 55 connectors. The first barge is being built by Zidell Marine in Portland, Ore., and will be completed by late October or early November. It will go into service as a towed barge for a few months until its new tug is delivered in late December or early January. The second and third 83,800-bbl. ATB barges are being built by Vigor Fab, also in Portland. Delivery is expected in spring and summer of 2015.

The tugs, designed by Entech & Associates, Houma, La., will measure 116'×36'×16.9' and will be powered by pairs of GE L250 Tier 3 engines rated at 2,035 hp each. Conrad Industries, Morgan City, La. is building the tugs.

Harley Marine’s fourth new ATB will be 30,000-bbls. and will operate in Alaska. It is being built at Zidell. Franco said the new barge will be towed by an existing tug initially while planning and construction of a newbuild ATB tug are completed. 

“ATBs are a little more money,” said Franco, “but they’re safer and more reliable in all weather, so it makes a lot of sense for the Alaska marketplace. We’re excited about this one, as we are about all the new ATBs.

“Over the past 15 years, the market has learned a lot more about ATBs and has developed better pins, better ballast systems, better everything. We’ve been studying and learning, and now we’re ready to make that step. We’ve invested heavily in double-hull barges, starting in 1998 and it’s a natural progression to start switching from on-the-wire to an ATB.”

So is the current ATB construction a bubble? “While there is that risk of overbuilding, I think that because the demand coming out of Canada and the Bakken is so strong, which is a good thing for national security and the economy, I think we’ll be OK for a while,” said Franco. “There’s also an obsolescence factor out there. Some barges need to go away, and there’s probably some operators that need to go away too.”

For his part, Sal Guarino doesn’t want to speculate about the future. “I threw my crystal ball away a long time ago,” he said. He also agreed that ATB design and technology has definitely improved. 

“Now they’re allowing us to put a little extra length on them [the barges] to reduce the drag and improve efficiency. In the past, barges were big square things with sort of a rounded bow and a straight rake, like barges were for years. Now many have ship-shape bows that allow better speed in rough water and even less resistance in calm water. Some of the ones we’re doing have bulbs also. And the tugs have been rehashed too, they fit better in the notches, and we try to eliminate the drag caused by the interface between the tug and the barge.”

But Guarino gives the most praise and credit to one company, and that’s Intercon. “Intercon is the one that really changed the industry. There are other people that provide ATB linkups, and some have been around longer than Intercon, but Intercon is the one that came up with the impetus for the industry to get going. Their unit is very, very reliable.”