(Bloomberg Markets) — When the Panama Canal’s expanded locks slid open in late June, perhaps no one was happier than executives in the U.S. shale industry. With the goal of making the U.S. a global powerhouse for natural gas exports, these frackers have their sights on Asia. Now they have a more direct route that could significantly benefit their bottom line.
Nine years of construction work at a cost of more than $5 billion have equipped the canal with a third set of locks and deeper navigation channels, crucial improvements that doubled the isthmus’s capacity for ferrying goods between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Within a week of opening, officials said they had more than 170 reservations for transits this year, mostly for so-called New Panamax cargo carriers that couldn’t fit through the old canal.
For natural gas suppliers, the expansion comes at a pivotal moment. It coincides with a big increase in U.S. shale production and the construction of several Gulf Coast export terminals designed to help American gas muscle its way onto the world market. The canal’s deeper channels can accommodate the kind of football-field-size tankers that transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), shaving 11 days and one-third the cost of the typical round trip to Asia. In July the U.S. Department of Energy predicted 550 tankers could be crossing each year by 2021.
“We can send gas ships that couldn’t fit through the canal before,” says Bill Diehl, president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau, a maritime industry trade group. “Asia looks like a good market for us now. The shipping costs look like a fair fight.”
A week after the locks opened, the Panama Canal Authority announced its first booking for an LNG carrier. Then in July the authority said Royal Dutch Shell had made a reservation that jumped ahead of the previous booking. Departing from the U.S. Gulf Coast, the 948' Maran Gas Apollonia on July 25 became the first LNG tanker to carry the fuel, used for heating and power plants, through the expanded canal. Although a slump in oil and gas prices and slow growth in Asia have kept a lid on exports, the volume is expected to grow by the end of the decade, says Jason Schenker, president of financial market researcher Prestige Economics in Austin, Texas.
Gas producers won’t be the only ones affected. Markets from Chile to China are now more accessible for oil drillers across the Americas, and millions of tons of container shipments originating from Asia could start bypassing western U.S. ports and opt to dock instead along the Gulf Coast or the Eastern Seaboard. The anticipated growth has triggered a multibillion-dollar dredging and building binge at ports in the U.S., Caribbean, and South America, all seeking a share of the traffic boom. “There are going to be a lot of feeder services that develop around it,” says Moses Kopmar, an analyst with Moody’s Investors Service in New York. “What it will do is basically unlock a huge amount of the global fleet in terms of being able to transit the canal.”
The 102-year-old shipping route risked losing relevance if it didn’t expand to handle the increasingly large vessels favored nowadays, industry experts say. The new locks — a set of chambers sealed by 3,200-ton doors used to raise and lower water levels — provide access to a wider lane for vessels: 180' across, compared with 109' in the original locks. (Many cargo ships squeezed through the old canal with only a couple of feet of clearance on each side.) In the middle of the isthmus, the authority also dredged deeper, wider lanes through Gatun Lake, where ships spend much of the interoceanic voyage.
For gas companies reeling from the recent collapse in prices, which in March reached the lowest level since 1998, the drop in time and shipping costs will provide a much-needed lift. The new canal can accept almost 90% of the world fleet, the authority says. That will cut the round trip from the U.S. Gulf to Asia to about 20 days, compared with 31 days through the Suez Canal or 34 days around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
Sailing from Louisiana to Tokyo via Panama would be about 35% cheaper than through the Suez, says Jason Feer, head of business intelligence at Poten & Partners, a ship broker in Houston. “It certainly gives U.S. LNG producers options,” he says. “It is a significant percentage of the reason that Asian buyers have been willing to sign contracts with U.S. producers.”
American LNG exports began in February, when Cheniere Energy opened its Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana. By 2020, U.S. export capacity is expected to expand to 9.2 billion cu. ft. a day, a fifteenfold increase, with the country becoming the world’s third-biggest LNG producer, behind Australia and Qatar, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says.
Panama itself is trying to become a destination for some of that fuel. It has tentative plans for a gas import terminal in the canal zone to supply the rest of the region. A U.S.-funded feasibility study is under way.
“There is a lot of activity, there are a lot of emotions, so we’d like just to stay calm,” says Oscar Bazán, the canal authority’s executive vice president for planning and business development. “But it’s clear LNG is going to be a big market for us.”
Bloomberg News by Alex Nussbaum and Naureen Malik. Nussbaum and Malik cover energy for Bloomberg News in New York.