The Panama Canal remains the focal point for conversations about the very large gas carrier (VLGC) market, as it can have a profound impact on freight rates. With more demand for US LPG anticipated, is the Panama Canal set to get even busier?

US LPG export capacity is forecast to increase further in 2023, particularly in the US Gulf. LPG exports are expected to rise by 16pc this year, enabled by a 4pc growth in production and a 4pc decline in domestic demand, US government agency the EIA says. And LPG inventories in the US Gulf are currently 25pc above the 10-year average. LPG exports hit record levels in the fourth quarter last year, and the record was broken again in January-March, with all three months posting in the top four months for LPG exports in US history.

The US LPG export trend is only going in one direction. And on the other side of the coin, LPG demand from Asia-Pacific is climbing. Chinese propane dehydrogenation (PDH) operations are slowly reviving, spurring more demand for propane imports.

Chinese PDH consumption declined throughout last year, averaging 75pc compared with 87pc in 2021 and aligning with a decline in operating margins. These low margins pushed some PDH unit start-ups from 2022 into 2023, with the economics offering little in the way of incentives. As a result, around 9.7mn t/yr of propane demand from 12 new Chinese PDH plants are expected to come on line this year.

And with more LPG exports being shipped from the US Gulf to Asia-Pacific, more vessels are expected to transit through the Neopanamax locks at the Panama Canal, entering a system that has come under significant pressure over the past year.

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) introduced a new booking system at the start of 2021, designed to prioritise container and passenger ships transiting the canal's Neopanamax locks. VLGCs are no longer eligible for "Period 1" transit slots — which can be booked up to a year in advance. Instead, VLGCs can now only apply for “Period 2” or “Period 3” slots, which can be booked up to 21 days in advance. The old system for VLGC booking was still honoured up until the end of 2021, which meant that the effects of the new booking system — longer delays and higher transits costs — were only felt from last year.

Panama Canal congestion in the fourth quarter of last year caused the rates for auctioned transit slots to surge, with four VLGCs having to pay in excess of $2mn, compared with a base rate of $93,500, shipping agent Boyd Steamship says. The highest fee paid at the auction was $2.6mn on 29 November.

Waiting times for an unbooked vessel transiting northbound through the expanded Neopanamax locks rose to an average of nearly 20 days in November, peaking at a record-high of 25 days on 28 November, ACP data show. For a southbound journey, waiting times averaged 15.5 days and peaked at 22 days on 2 November. This compares with average waiting times of eight days and 10 days for northbound and southbound voyages, respectively, in October.

Northbound waiting times averaged seven days in January-March, flat on the year but down from 13 days in the fourth quarter of last year. And for southbound voyages, waiting times averaged five days in January-March this year, also flat on the year and down from 11 days in October-December.

Panama Canal delays are likely to be a considerable source of inefficiency for the foreseeable future, albeit with seasonal variance. And waiting times are becoming increasingly volatile and difficult to forecast. This unpredictability combined with higher canal fees are making it more attractive to route ships through Cape of Good Hope or the Suez Canal instead, Oslo-listed shipowner Avance Gas says.

But voyages around the Cape of Good Hope or through the Suez Canal take around 40 and 43 days respectively, compared with an average of 25 days for journeys through the Panama Canal.

In January, 35pc of US ballasters travelled through the Suez Canal or Cape of Good Hope, which was an increase from the fourth quarter when 30pc of US ballasters used these routes, according to Avance Gas.

And emissions regulations have been introduced in the shipping sector this year, which will also tighten vessel availability. The International Maritime Organisation's Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index and Carbon Intensity Indicator regulations came into effect on 1 January, forcing older ships to reduce their speeds. This will lengthen voyages and prolong periods of employment, Avance Gas says.

Future impacts

The Panama Canal faces worsening periods of drought, which could lower its draft and disrupt traffic, canal administrator Ricaurte Vasquez Morales says. "If we analyse the numbers for 2023, the recently ended month of May was the driest since 1950, which places us in a delicate situation, considering that at that time the waterway did not operate with the Neopanamax locks," Vasquez Morales says. The last time the canal experienced intense drought was in 2019-20 and, historically, these cycles are repeated once every five years, Vasquez Morales says. But the cycles are now shrinking to just three years. And the situation could be made worse by the arrival of the El Nino weather phenomenon, which will bring an earlier start to the 2024 rainy season.

Added to the mix is the emergence of green hydrogen and ammonia demand. Panama has launched a green hydrogen strategy that sets consumption targets for its maritime, aviation and heavy-duty transport sectors. The plan foresees 500,000t of green hydrogen production and its derivatives by 2030, to meet 5pc of bunkering demand. It expects to produce 2mn t/yr of green hydrogen and derivatives to cover 30pc of the bunkering segment and 20pc of fuel demand for heavy-duty machinery and vehicles by 2040.

Coupled with this is the ramp-up in green and blue ammonia demand. Green ammonia represents just one of the options for reducing CO2 in the shipping industry, but it is a significant one. Capacity for green ammonia could rise from nothing to around 2mn t/yr by 2025, before soaring to 75mn t/yr by 2030, should all the planned projects come on line from 2026

Investment in ammonia-powered vessels is expected to increase in the mid-2030s, with any vessel delivered in this period needing to be at least dual-fuelled using zero-carbon fuels.

If ammonia and hydrogen activity increase at the Panama Canal, and droughts become more frequent, how will the system cope in the years to come?

Author Jamie Aldridge, Senior LPG Freight Reporter