It was an unprecedented year for the barge industry, with demands to continue operations during a global pandemic forcing inland barge and towing companies to adapt, adjust and rethink their operations in many new ways.
Over the past year, a relatively insular industry which works as a quiet transportation motor of the U.S. economy, has found itself reaching far outside its bubble — conferring with safety and hygiene consultants in formulating Covid-19 safety and sanitation protocols, hiring contractors to reconfigure office space, serving as a conduit of information about Covid-19 vaccines and their availability for employees, hiring doctors to answer employee questions about Covid and vaccine safety, and consulting with workplace experts about dealing with employees who refuse to wear masks.
The pandemic also forced the industry to rethink how it handles crew changes, sources food and prepare meals on vessels, conducts required federal vessel inspections, pays for unexpected costs of personal safety equipment and cleaning supplies, and handles sick mariners and vessels that need to be taken out of service for quarantine.
THE COVID FACTOR
Covid is a “constant factor, a constant thought” in every decision taken at Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, Miss., said president Austin Golding. “It affected how we market our business and how we meet, which became more virtual, as well as how we connect with our employees. Covid affected everything we did, even personal vacations and time off, everything was rolled back.”
He said the pandemic “was certainly not positive on our business,” causing a 10%-30% percent drop in the company’s revenue, depending on what quarter is evaluated.
While operational shifts were challenging and costly with new Covid protocols, the pandemic also brought so-called “demand destruction” for some of the core energy commodities the industry transports, namely petroleum, chemical products and coal, due to a steep drop in consumer demand for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
“Last year was extremely difficult,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Campbell Transportation, Houston, Pa., which is heavily involved in coal transport. “Volumes dropped significantly, and in a capital intensive business with boats, barges and assets, it’s hard to adjust.”
Over the past few months, things are improving, he added, with “volumes slowly picking up across the board.”
The tank barge sector was hit especially hard by these changing economics, coming on the heels of an already challenged energy market. But the situation could have been worse. Unlike other industries that had to shut down due to the pandemic, the barge industry was deemed nationally essential and had to keep working.
Although some barges were laid up, many still had work fulfilling existing contracts or responding to the need for products that were still in demand, according to Ken Ericksen, senior vice president and head of client advisory and development at IHS Markit, an information and advisory firm.
It took a few months after last year’s shutdowns for slowdowns to appear in the barge market, said Ericksen, who follows the industry. “June was the lowest month for cargo movement. That was the inflection point for the inland river system in chemicals, petroleum, coal and coke.”
The industry also had to deal with a record-breaking number of extreme hurricanes that hit the Gulf region late last summer and fall, requiring additional application of company emergency preparedness plans and posing many logistical challenges. Barge operators are used to such disruptions from storms, high water, flooding and droughts, but dealing with a pandemic is on another level. “Weather events give us operational hurdles, but this involves the health of our crews,” Golding said. “Having an impact on our crews is different, much more intense.”
The pandemic also forced the industry to shift its lobbying focus in Washington, with an unusual emphasis on asking Congress for federal aid to help cover pandemic-related expenses and asking federal and state officials to give vaccination priority to mariners. Many companies applied for help through the Paycheck Protection Program and for small businesses loans available through pandemic relief legislation passed by Congress last summer.
The industry also saw a slight bump in business, as ship-assist tug operators guided federal hospital ships involved in Covid response in and out of harbors and some barge companies moved products used to make sanitizers and PPE equipment, as well as wood products used to fabricate paper towels and toilet paper that were in short supply last spring.
Unrelated to the pandemic, dry bulk carriers enjoyed strong demand to move what is expected to be a record amount of corn, while soybean exports are expected to be robust in 2021.
“Export grain has certainly been a bright spot this year,” Jennifer Carpenter, president and CEO of the American Waterways Operators, said in a WorkBoat interview in March. “We had a bountiful harvest, we had robust orders for corn and soybeans, particularly from China, some of our foreign competitors put a pause on their exports, so that has been a real positive.” But, she cautions, this does not mean boom times for the industry, as demand is off in so many other sectors.
The industry also learned new ways of doing business that could remain into the future: setting up work-at-home operations for land-based employees, doing Coast Guard vessel inspections virtually, and establishing health protocols that will be useful in keeping workers healthy in many other situations.
Meanwhile, federal funding for lock and dam modernization continued to be strong over the past year. The election of President Joe Biden has brought highly visible support for the Jones Act and for developing offshore wind farms, which could open new opportunities to many sectors of the workboat industry. His climate change plans, however, could hurt companies moving fossil fuel energy products, and some in the industry worry that his proposed corporate tax increases could stunt investment and economic growth, leading to weakened demand for barging services.
In addition, if approved by Congress, the waterways industry could be in line for as much as $17 billion for waterways and port improvements under Biden’s proposed infrastructure proposal.