Market outlook: Panama Canal expansion to facilitate more US polymer exports

The canal expansion would allow for ships carrying up to 13,000 container boxes. Copyright: Rex Features

The expansion, slated to be complete by 2016, could go a long way in helping US producers move plastics abroad, especially to Asia

The major expansion of the Panama Canal by 2016 could be a boon for the US petrochemical sector as it prepares to ramp up exports of polymers following a massive wave of ethylene and derivatives capacity coming on line in 2017-2018.

The Panama Canal expansion would allow for larger containerships to pass through – up to around 13,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent units) versus about 5,000 TEU currently. A TEU is based on a 20-foot long intermodal container box.

“This could reduce the cost to serve Asia from the US. As new volumes come online, the West Coast ports can’t handle them,” said Paul Bjacek, head of chemicals and natural resources research at consultancy Accenture.The US is in the midst of an unprecedented building spree for petrochemical plants as a result of the shale gas boom. There are already six new ethane crackers under construction amid expansions of existing crackers that will bring on around 8.1m tonnes/year of ethylene capacity, or 33% of the current base.

These crackers will come with derivative facilities, primarily polyethylene (PE). And much of the new capacity will be targeted for export.

Today, around 70% of US PE exports go through ports on the US Gulf Coast – a figure that has been steadily rising since 2000 when it was in the low to mid-50% range, according to statistics compiled by Accenture.

One benefit of an expanded Panama Canal would be that more containers would likely arrive from Asia to US Gulf Coast ports, alleviating a consistent shortage of such containers.

“More incoming traffic from Asia will likely be diverted from US West Coast ports to East and Gulf Coast ports, which are closer to consumer markets. Arriving freight will largely be consumer goods and as a result, there will be greater container availability at these ports. This will solve the shortage and will help in exporting,” said Kevin Swift, chief economist of the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

“The Panama Canal expansion will affect US chemical trade flows. It would just make it easier to ship large volumes of resin from the US Gulf Coast to Asia,” he added.

“The expansion allows larger ships to transit the Panama Canal to serve the Port of Houston. This likely would increase the availability of containers for exports from Houston,” said a spokesperson with ExxonMobil Chemical.

“The expansion is expected to improve canal transit times with the potential to improve overall delivery time to Asia Pacific customers,” the spokesperson added.

ExxonMobil Chemical is building a new 1.5m tonne/year ethane cracker in Baytown, Texas, along with two polyethylene units of 650,000 tonnes/year each that can produce metallocene linear low density PE (mLLDPE) and LLDPE.

However, Dow Chemical, which is also building a 1.5m tonne/year cracker in Freeport, Texas, along with downstream PE and other products, said the Panama Canal expansion “will not have a major impact on potential exports”.

On the US Gulf Coast, the Port of Houston is also undergoing a major expansion that will allow for containership sizes of up to around 8,000 TEU versus a current 5,000 TEU, noted Accenture’s Bjacek.

“Producers are so focused on building plants but they need to also focus on making sure local port infrastructure is working at its best, and where to put some of their facilities such as those for packaging,” he said. “For past capacity expansions, producers didn’t have to think about it – the system took care of it. But with all the new capacity coming on, it’s more critical at this point in time.”

The Port of Houston Authority is investing on infrastructure improvements “to ensure that the Port of Houston can accommodate the advent of larger vessels and increased cargo resulting from the pending Panama Canal expansion in 2016, as well as the expected future demographic growth in the region,” it states on its website.

It expects to commit $275m for various capital projects in 2015 related to terminals, railroads, channel development, building renovations and information technology.

For polymer exports coming out of the US Gulf Coast, a system may develop of “feeder” ships in the 4,500-5000 TEU range making “milk runs”, feeding Panama scale ships in deeper water ports in the Caribbean or Mexico, noted Bjacek.

The other option is to ship plastic pellets by rail to the US West Coast ports for product to be shipped to Asia.

“Railroads also trying to be competitive to the West Coast,” said Bjacek. “There are lots of options. Producers have to be on top of them and also make sure they have the right infrastructure.”

Another intriguing option involves building a cracker and derivative PE plants on the West Coast of Mexico if a pipeline were to be built from the US to the region to transport natural gas. This would enable easier exports to Asia.

“There is talk of more pipelines from the US to Mexico to move natural gas and NGLs (natural gas liquids). Perhaps, one day, there would be a future potential for a petrochemical export facility on the West Coast of Mexico that would help monetise US gas,” said Bjacek.

Mexico itself has a deficit of PE which will only partly be filled with the oncoming 1.05m tonne/year cracker and PE plants in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, being built by Braskem Idesa. That project, called Ethylene XXI, is expected to be completed by Q4 2014.

“There is talk of more pipelines from the US to Mexico to move natural gas and NGLs (natural gas liquids). Perhaps, one day, there would be a future potential for a petrochemical export facility on the West Coast of Mexico that would help monetise US gas,” said Bjacek.

In January 2015, a consortium of Mexico’s Carso Energy, Energy Transfer Partners and US-based MasTec won a $767m contract to build a 230 kilometre pipeline running from Texas to northern, central and Western Mexico through Chihuahua state. The pipeline is expected to be complete by 2017.



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