Panama Canal opens shortcut for natural gas
The first shipment of liquefied natural gas to pass through the expanded Panama Canal heralds new trade routes.
Panos Kolokotsas grew up on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Little did he know, as he played near the stunning beaches and booming caves as a child, that he would grow up to perform a world first.
For Panos has just captained the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipment to pass through the Panama Canal.
“The canal is a magnificent technical achievement and it was an honour to be the first to take an LNG ship through it,” said the 39-year-old Master of the Shell-chartered Maran Gas Apollonia. “It is a real milestone.”
More than a million ships have passed through the Panama Canal since it opened in 1914. But many of the world’s biggest vessels were too big to use it, forcing some crews to sail thousands of kilometres to the turbulent waters off the tip of South America, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans clash off Cape Horn.
Nine years ago work started to build bigger locks for the larger ships that now plough through the world’s oceans. The canal opened its gates to the inaugural large container shipment at the end of June. A few weeks later, the Apollonia sailed through on its way to make a delivery of US gas to China.
Panos has sailed all over the world during his 20 years as a merchant seaman. But the Panama Canal was still a special experience.
“It’s a beautiful place to visit,” he said. “Not that we had much chance to admire the view. We had to make sure everything went smoothly.”
The canal’s two new lock complexes contain more than 4 million cubic metres of concrete and each has nine water-recycling basins to save water. Each lock section – one near the Caribbean coast and another on the Pacific side – has eight sliding steel gates weighing between 2,100 and 4,200 tonnes.
Timelapse: expanding the Panama Canal over five years. Courtesy of EarthCam.
Title: Official Panama Canal Expansion Time Lapse 2011-2016
Duration: 2:30 minutes
EarthCam construction time-lapse of the Panama Canal Expansion, showcasing progress from 2011 to 2016.
Official Panama Canal Expansion Time Lapse 2011-2016 Transcript
[Background music plays]
Soft instrumental music building to anthemic.
Panama Canal Expansion
Canal de Panamá
Split-screen with frame-left a still aerial photo of the Panama Canal expansion under construction and frame-right a still aerial photo of the completed expansion, buildings and structures all in place.
In both photographs, the canal, green landscape and blue skies form the background, and this remains the background throughout.
A widescreen still aerial photo of the Panama Canal expansion as it is today.
5 Years Earlier
A widescreen still aerial photo of the site of the Panama Canal expansion five years earlier, an expanse of gravel and sand all that is to be seen of the large construction site.
Zoom towards frame-left and beyond, to an area of the building site beyond which the canal is visible. Time lapse footage begins at this point, showing vessels moving in fast motion up and down the canal, construction and earth moving vehicles moving to and fro on the gravel road surfaces.
The camera pans slightly towards frame-right as the time lapse footage continues, showing large vessels moving down the canal, to and from the construction site, as the site begins to change.
Pull back to wider aerial angle of the canal, parts of the construction site and the surrounding landscape. Time-lapse footage continues as the building site slowly changes shape.
Aerial footage of the main construction site as the expansion starts. The camera zooms to a closer view of the site, now bustling with vehicles and filled with temporary construction structures.
Cuts to closer aerial footage of a section of the construction site as crane structures form and other structures are put in place.
Panning aerial footage up the length of the canal expansion, bustling with activity, construction vehicles, cranes and other structures.
Cuts to closer aerial footage of the walls of the canal cutting to a wider view of the construction continuing.
Reverse angle of the canal expansion construction, pulling back to a wider aerial footage of the formation of the locks.
More aerial footage from various angles of the construction, finally pulling back to an extreme wide panoramic view of the entire construction site and surrounding landscape.
Aerial footage of a section of the construction site where a building with a blue roof is gradually erected.
Aerial footage of the construction from a number of angles, and showing the control tower as it is built.
Aerial footage of one of the locks as it is completed and fills with water.
Aerial footage as construction continues and more sections fill with water.
Aerial footage of a cargo vessel and tug boats passing through the completed canal and a gate closing behind the vessels.
Wider aerial footage of the Panama Canal expansion project, showing the gates of the locks opening and closing, the water levels changing accordingly.
Panama Canal Expansion Inauguration – June 26th, 2016
The time-lapse footage ends on a freeze frame on the wide aerial view of the Panama Canal expansion.
A time-lapse by EarthCam
© 2016 EarthCam Inc. All Rights Reserved
The sheer magnitude of the work left Tasos Loukis, chief engineer on the Apollonia, in awe.
“It’s a technological miracle,” he said. “I’ve been through the old locks seven times before in smaller vessels but this was really exciting.”
He is also relieved to have avoided another voyage through the stormy seas off South America.
“I don’t think anybody enjoys the Cape Horn experience,” he said. “It’s a longer voyage, which is tiring for everybody, and the weather is rough most of the time. The canal is much safer.”
A tug boat guides the Apollonia into the first set of locks on the Panama Canal. Photo: Panama Canal Authority
The Maran Gas Apollonia arrives in Panama from the USA. Photo: Panama Canal Authority
The landmark LNG shipment enters the locks close to the Pacific Ocean
Apollonia passes through the Panama Canal’s locks on its way to Asia
Cutting costs, cutting carbon
After emerging from the canal on July 25, Apollonia’s crew continued their journey across the Pacific.
It is a route that is likely to grow in importance.
The USA could become one of the world's largest LNG suppliers by the end of the decade, due to a surge in shale gas production. The Panama Canal will dramatically reduce voyage times for shipments between new LNG export plants on the US Gulf Coast and the major importing countries of Asia.
The US Energy Information Administration estimates that such shipments could now arrive in the major consuming countries of Asia in around 20 days, about 10 days fewer than the next-fastest route through Egypt’s Suez Canal. The Panama shortcut reduces delivery times for US gas supplies to Chile to as little as eight days, compared to 20 days via Cape Horn.
The new route also shortens voyages from Trinidad and Tobago, another exporter of LNG, to growing gas-hungry cities around the Pacific, and opens up the possibility that Peru could supply consumers around the North Atlantic.
Shorter voyages for LNG tankers as they deliver gas for power stations and other industry around the world should reduce shipping costs and carbon emissions. Better access to cleaner-burning natural gas from the Americas could also help countries in Asia burn less coal, helping to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions more widely. When used to generate electricity, natural gas produces around 50% less CO2 than coal.
“The expanded canal is good news for everyone,” said Steve Hill, Shell’s executive vice president for gas and energy marketing and trading. “And for Shell it will increase our ability to provide a flexible and reliable supply of natural gas to consumers in many parts of the world.”
Story by Dan Fineren