Offshore Ports Could Suit U.S. and Africa

By Wendy Laursen 2014-09-06 01:44:00

It’s not the first offshore port that Bechtel has built, but this time, they are in discussions with the U.S. government about funding for a project that could transform the nation’s container trade.

As container ships get larger, a cascading of ships and further consolidation of shipping routes means that many U.S. ports are under pressure to handle larger ships. Offshore ports serviced by shortsea shipping and barges are the answer, says Bechtel’s ports sector manager, Marco Pluijm. 

Currently up to 70 percent of west coast containers move east by rail and road, says Pluijm. If these containers shifted from overland transport to all-water direct import via the Suez Canal to an offshore port, this would save:
•    20 to 30 percent on direct freight costs from the Far East to the U.S. east coast due to the all-water economy of larger scale shipping
•    30 to 40 percent (or even more) on direct freight costs due to 40 to 50 percent shorter overland transport distance in the US itself
•    20 to 30 percent in emission on the all-water-route (lower fuel consumption, more efficient engines) plus 40 to 50 percent reduction in overland emissions.

These figures assume that the U.S. east coast can receive bigger vessels without first going via Caribbean hubs as they currently do. Instead, an offshore port hub means that without extra handling, the transhipment industry could keep the money and the jobs in the U.S., says Pluijm. The overall cost reduction for a multi-user offshore hub compared to improving existing ports and relying on overland transport varies from 30 to 40 percent for both Capex and Opex. 

In the offshore port model, no dredging is required as the facility would be placed in water of appropriate depth. Technologies such as dynamically controlled mooring and proactive fender systems would ensure safe operations with a wide cargo handling operating window.

“We think that the minimum size is three berths for ocean going vessels, and you can extend them in any combination with dry bulk, wet bulk and containers,” he says.
The concept is not entirely new. Bechtel has already built Khalifa Port and Khalifa Industrial Zone in Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s largest combined port and industrial zone developments. This development differs from what Pluijm is proposing for the U.S., as it is joined to the shore by a 1km-long road and utility bridge, but it demonstrates the scale and the potential of the concept. The port island, which includes the terminal complex, is 2.7 square kilometers (1.05 square miles), and it is situated 5 kilometers (3.12 miles) offshore. The port’s container yard features six ship-to-shore quay cranes, 30 automated stacking cranes and 20 shuttle carriers. 

Pluijm believes that Africa has potential for similar developments as the U.S. for example in Mozambique where mining commodities are shipped in bulk to China. “All the economic assessments that we’ve done indicate that it is better to bring the port to the ship instead of dredging channels and bringing the ship to the port,” he says. “In Africa, if you would connect your offshore port to the shore, you might have to bridge 10-15km before you reached sufficient water depth.”

The advantages of an offshore port become even greater if the development is combined directly with inland water transport for example along the Zambezi or Mississippi Rivers, says Pluijm, who is optimistic about U.S. participation. Bechtel is talking to investors and users in both the U.S. and Africa and hopes to commence projects in the near future. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.