US ports on the lower Mississippi River cannot yet accommodate Capesize vessels but the Obama Administration is taking steps to see that they can.
The US Army Corps of Engineers revealed on 13 May its plans to prepare a supplemental environmental report that it will integrate into a larger investigation to deepen the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico from 13.7 m (45 ft) up to 15.2 m (50 ft).
Plans to deepen the channel have been in the works for years, but finding the money to pay for the multi-billion project has been a challenge. However, “population growth trends, trade forecasts, and examination of the current port capacities show that there is likely economic justification for deepening the channel,” the Army Corps stated.
Capesize vessel capacity would allow the US to better compete in the export of grain and other commodities. This is a significant factor in the push to get the river draught down from 13.7 to 15.2 m.
Threats to exports
Results from a study released in December by the World Trade Center of New Orleans and a coalition of shippers and vessel operators concluded that the current river depth threatens America’s position in the world soybean market.
The report also estimated that the lower Mississippi produces 92% of our nation’s agricultural exports, with five Louisiana ports handling almost 75% of the nation’s grain exports.
The impact of the Panama Canal locks
The opening of the larger new Panama Canal locks in 2016 makes deepening the Lower Mississippi even more critical for the bulker markets, according to US officials.
The ability to send Capesize ships up to 180,000 dwt through the expanded canal would “enable transportation cost saving and may lead to alternative routing for US exports of some bulk commodities such as grain, petroleum, and coal to Asia,” the US Maritime Administration asserted in a 2013 report.
Although only 12 to 14 additional vessels per day can be accommodated through the new locks, the increased size of the vessels will result in doubling Panama Canal throughput from 300 million Panama Canal/Universial Measurement System (PC/UMS) tonnes to 600 million PC/UMS tonnes, according to MarAd.
The Army Corps will be holding three public scoping meetings on the project in Louisiana between 26 and 28 May in Belle Chasse, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.