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