Marine Transportation System

2013: The Year Before the Year of LNG?

In Efficiency, Energy/Environ, Green Transportation, Infrastructure, Ports on December 29, 2013 at 4:51 pm

A year in which U.S. shipyards announced contracts for over twenty new ocean going vessels (with options for several more) is noteworthy, especially given the recent difficult times experienced by the shipbuilding industry.  What makes this fact even more significant is that LNG as a propulsion fuel is a central feature in each of these vessels, either as the intended fuel source upon delivery or at some point in the future.

So does this mean that the U.S. maritime industry in America has reached the LNG tipping point, where a tidal wave of even more marine projects will be announced in the coming year?  My short answer would be a heavily qualified, but nonetheless definite: “maybe.”

A distinction has developed between ships that will be “LNG-ready” as opposed to those that are “LNG-capable,” the difference being those vessels that will use LNG upon delivery and those that can be converted to operate on LNG at some later date.  While certain design modifications are incorporated into these ordered vessels, such as foundations for LNG fuel tanks and dual fuel main engines, they will operate on conventional diesel fuels when they are delivered.

The reasons for taking a half step to LNG rather than making the plunge are several, among them the additional cost of the entire fuel gas system, including the fuel tanks.  However I suspect the greatest reason is uncertainty related to LNG supplies in the ports where these vessels will call.  This is particularly the case with the product tankers that have been ordered that, unlike the LNG-powered container vessels do not operate in a classic point-to-point liner service.  Their deployment is largely dictated by cargo availabilities throughout the United States and thus, until LNG is more widely available, the owners will likely hold back on a full commitment to LNG.

If one is looking for positive signs on the infrastructure front, they are there.  The Port Fourchon terminal project on the Gulf of Mexico in Southern Louisiana is being developed by Harvey Gulf Marine to serve its fleet of LNG-powered offshore service vessels.  It will be the first operational LNG bunkering facility in the United States and is expected to be operational next year.  Clean Energy has announced its intent to construct facilities dedicated to the marine industry in Jacksonville.  Tote, Inc. issued a request for proposal (RFP) to potential LNG suppliers to provide LNG for their vessel operations based in Tacoma, Washington and Jacksonville, Florida.  Each announcement of new LNG-powered ships results in a deluge of phone calls from potential LNG suppliers seeking meetings and making proposals to vessel owners.  So again, there is clear movement, growing interest and some tangible progress; but it is slow and these projects still face regulatory challenges and uncertainty that may result in delays and higher costs.

Given the delivery schedules of the Tote, Inc. ships, in late 2015 and early 2016, and the Crowley vessels in 2017,  it seems that the window for putting bunker infrastructure in place—completing land acquisition, clearing Federal and local permit requirements, and facility construction—is growing very tight.  This raises the possibility of ships being delivered and no LNG being available, which will greatly increase operating costs due to the requirements to use ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) to meet Emission Control Area (ECA) regulations.

So, to offer a slightly more elaborate answer to the tipping point question, the U.S. is closer today than a year ago but one cannot conclude that the LNG revolution has begun.  Of the limited number of Jones Act liner operators, three have already announced projects–Matson being the third–and another has announced intentions to convert existing vessels to LNG. The product tanker market has been effectively replaced over the last ten years so there are limits to the expansion there.  I think the greatest opportunities for achieving critical mass in a marine fuel transformation can be found when and if several large harbor services or tug and barge companies either convert existing tugs to LNG or CNG or acquire new tonnage or the top-tier international liner companies announce new construction programs with LNG-fuelled vessels.  Either – and certainly both – of these developments would be a critical next step to accelerate widespread LNG deployment.

Marine vessels represent the potential for a large concentrated market for LNG/CNG, and a port that has both ocean going and harbor vessels that need LNG for fuel would surely provide sufficient basis for investments in LNG marine terminal infrastructure for bunkering.

While there is still a way to go until we all agree that the breakthrough has occurred we are seeing some decisions and investments that are the necessary predicate to making LNG a common transportation fuel throughout the country.  John E. Graykowski

LNG: Ports as a Catalyst?

In Energy/Environ, Green Transportation, MTS Policy, Ports on October 10, 2013 at 8:47 am

MTS Matters welcomes a well-known and regarded figure in D.C. transportation circles. John Graykowski, a Principal of Maritime Industry Consultants, served as Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration, and for two years as Acting Administrator, during the Clinton Administration. He is an attorney with experience in both private and public sectors. The subject of LNG-fueled transportation and how it might develop in the context of maritime policy and port communities has been a focus of his attention in recent years. This is the first of his contributions to this blog’s musings on port/maritime policy—present and future.

Over the past year, LNG as a marine fuel has gone from novel concept to an accepted alternative fuel here in the United States. Some LNG-capable vessels are operating and more will be under construction as appreciation is growing for the environmental, economic and energy security benefits offered by LNG. This transformation of a marine cargo commodity to emerging marine fuel in here and elsewhere might lead one to conclude that the broad deployment of LNG throughout the U.S. is underway and faces no challenges or constraints—but this is not the case. Lagging behind LNG-fueled vessel development here are the necessary market and regulatory structures that promote its widespread development.

The most common platitude in any discussion of LNG is the “chicken and egg” problem. Ship owners are loathe to make the large capital investment in LNG technologies absent certainty of supply.  Meanwhile gas suppliers are averse to spending $150 million or more on bunkering infrastructure without firm, long term purchase contracts by ship owners. This reflects the lack of historic relationships between the gas supply industry and marine operators, who purchase bunker fuel in virtually every port on a spot basis and never needed long term contracts.

Compounding that is a lack of understanding and knowledge about each other’s industries. Marine operators are not familiar with gas production, transportation and market dynamics and gas suppliers have little direct knowledge about the marine industry practices, requirements, and the like. Emblematic of the divide between the two industries is the simple fact that marine operators purchase fuel on the basis of metric tons or barrels of oil, while the gas industry sells LNG on the basis of million BTUs. Potentially complicating this market disconnect, are increasingly stringent accounting rules that likely require a long term LNG contract to be carried as a contingent liability, thus impairing a balance sheet and constraining future capital expenditures for a marine company.

Beyond these market issues are significant regulatory challenges related to both operational procedures for bunkering vessels and, more importantly, the siting, permitting and operation of small and medium sized LNG marine terminals. It may come as a surprise to some, but there are no existing uniform federal regulatory structures that apply specifically to LNG marine fueling terminals.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA) each have regulations that apply to LNG fueling terminals. These regulations, however, were developed with large scale export and import facilities in mind and thus are largely inapplicable to a small marine fuel terminal and the fueling of other than LNG carriers. In many cases these regulations may conflict, which creates a large area of potential regulatory confusion and will most likely result in ad hoc development of LNG regulations. Adding to this uncertainty is the probable requirement that these facilities will be subject to local permitting actions, which can provide opponents of LNG the opportunity to intervene and delay the project.

Where do ports fit in this puzzle of a marketplace?

Ports can and should be a catalyst to spur LNG development throughout the transportation industries since they are at the center of marine activities in the United States. They provide a ready-made, multi-modal market for LNG expansion beyond large oceangoing vessels, which includes ferries and harbor craft, trucking, and rail operations. Port agencies may have some degree of jurisdiction, and even control, over property where LNG operations will occur. Depending on the port, it may have a role in the siting, permitting, financing, development, or even operations of an LNG fueling terminal. As a responsible economic development agency, a port can also play a critical role in the public education and promotion of LNG and the mitigation of local opposition to such projects.

Public port agencies generally understand this is a constructive role they are in a position to play. We are seeing that in isolated initiatives, notably on the West Coast, as well on an international scale with Antwerp leading a working group that includes the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The expansion of LNG and compressed natural gas (CNG) as a replacement fuel in port related operations, already showing benefits, is also a powerful tool that ports can use to achieve significant emissions reductions and thus reduce the cost and impact of increasingly more stringent environmental regulations or measures to meet local community demands. If LNG is used to fuel vessels’ auxiliary generators while in port there may be no need to install costly shore power systems for cold ironing since equivalent emissions results could be obtained with LNG.

Collectively, ports can be in the forefront of a “Green” initiative, leading to the expansion of LNG as a transportation fuel throughout the nation. Individually, ports that facilitate LNG bunkering operations could find them to be a competitive factor in attracting and retaining liner business as those companies bring LNG-capable vessels on line to meet IMO global standards by 2020.

Much has been written of the significant impact that domestically produced natural gas and its liquefied form will have on our on our nation. Ports are where all surface modes of commercial transportation intersect and where LNG distribution will naturally occur. They are in a position to be influential in the development of national policies that promote and accommodate the broad deployment of LNG as a transportation fuel.
John E. Graykowski

 

The Murray-Cantwell Approach to Problem Solving

In Competition, Congress, Infrastructure, Intermodal, Water Resources on September 23, 2013 at 7:05 pm

This past week State of Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell introduced the Maritime Goods Movement Act of 2013 (S. 1905). Their inspiration for legislation came from what I have described as the unintended consequences of the Harbor Maintenance Tax, starting with complaints from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma that the Canadian competition to the north and the shippers, who are obliged to pay the Harbor Maintenance Tax when entering U.S. ports, were taking full advantage of the cost-differential where the HMT does not apply.

It is a complaint that was given some appearance of validity in a Federal Maritime Commission report issued last year and, a bit more convincingly, by data comparisons published by The Journal of Commerce last month.

At the request of the senators the FMC studied the role played by the HMT (0.125% of cargo value) in decisions to use the Vancouver and Prince Rupert gateways. The report, adopted by the FMC commissioners on a party line vote, didn’t make a strong case as to cause and effect. It did suggest that if an equivalent of the tax were applied in Canada “a portion of the U.S. cargo…likely would revert to using U.S. West Coast ports.” The report concluded by suggesting any remedy is in the hands of Congress not the regulatory agency.

The JOC looked at the issue by comparing market share within the PNW and among U.S. West Coast ports, where the HMT is uniformly applied. This is their finding in a nutshell:

Port data collected by The Journal of Commerce shows clearly that while Seattle and Tacoma have lost no market share relative to U.S. West Coast ports, their market share in the Pacific Northwest, a region that includes the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, has slipped significantly in recent years.

That may not be conclusive of HMT culpability but it is indicative of competitive weakness just south of the 49th Parallel.  The comparative strength in British Columbia could be attributed to the HMT in addition to other factors, among them the efficient intermodal delivery system established as part of Canada’s ongoing Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy.

Enter the Maritime Goods Movement Act User Fee proposed in the bill. The HMT would be repealed and then, for all practical purposes, recreated as the “MGMA User Fee.” In virtually every respect it would be like the HMT. The principal difference is that it also would be applied to U.S. bound cargo that first enters North America through Canada or Mexico.  Shippers would pay when the cargo crosses the land border.  On this bill rest the hopes of Puget Sound’s largest ports.

But the senators didn’t stop there. They also decided to try to fix the issue that is troubling most U.S. ports—the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The bill would make several changes—including expanded uses of the HMTF such as are found in the Senate-passed WRDA (S. 601)—but let’s here focus on the greatest failing of the law as it now stands. That is the under-spending of HMTF funds.

Unlike the RAMP Act that would rely on a parliamentary mechanism to leverage full funding over the objections of appropriators, and unlike the WRDA bills of the Senate and House that set funding targets at which appropriators might aim, the MGMA bill uses a direct approach. At the bottom of page 10 is this: “[N]o fee may be collected…except to the extent that the expenditure of the fee [for allowable activities] is provided for in advance in an appropriations Act.” It is a rarely used means tying revenue collections to the spending of those revenues. The transaction would occur outside the section 302 allocations that cap appropriations committee spending. In doing so it would remove the incentive for appropriators to limit allocations and would treat the HMTF more like a dedicated trust fund.

This approach is employed in other areas of government where a user fee is collected to support a specific function of government. The only downside is that to meet the requirements of budget rules Congress also would have to identify offsetting revenue to fill the hole that would be created when, as a first step to creating the new MGMA User Fee, the HMT would be repealed, thereby eliminating 10 years of projected revenue.  Yes, it gets murky down deep in the budget process. But the result would be the very easily understood concept of “dollars in, dollars out,” as a Murray aide summarized.

Finding the offset, in the range of billions of dollars, presents a real challenge to the bill sponsors. There is a reason why other attempts at legislative solutions have produced little more than “sense of Congress” statements of principle and funding targets that are…well…just targets. The climb up this legislative Hill is very steep and the obstacles—including leadership objections and the search for offsetting revenue—have been daunting.

While we are noting the degree of incline ahead, let’s add to this particular bill the likelihood of complaints to the State Department from Mexico and Canada, who are major U.S. trading partners, and opposition from shippers and the railroads that carry their cargo into the U.S.

But that doesn’t mean it is the wrong solution to an HMTF problem that has existed since the early 1990s. It is the right one because it would be a more effective and lasting way to link the revenue to the reason for the revenue, which is to keep American harbor channels maintained and our ports competitive.  Pbea

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