The U.S. Energy Information Administration's (EIA) recent report exploring the potential impacts of reductions in refinery activity in the Northeast on petroleum product markets in that region pointed out that, if Sunoco's Philadelphia refinery shuts down, waterborne movements from the Gulf Coast could be an important route for alternative supplies to help replace lost volumes in the short term, particularly for ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD). Because this route would involve vessel movements between U.S. ports, Jones Act vessels must be used. The Jones Act requires goods or passengers moved in U.S. coastal waters between U.S. ports to be carried on U.S. flagged ships that are constructed in the United States, and owned and crewed by U.S. citizens.
EIA's report mentioned 56 Jones Act tankers handling petroleum, including tankers being decommissioned. But the table did not show the many barges that are also used to transport petroleum in coastal waters. Updated information suggests that less than 40 tankers and perhaps as many as 270 coastal barges are in operation. However, as discussed below, delivery of a large volume of petroleum products on a sustained basis from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast still appears to represent a significant challenge in the short run.
Some years ago, short vessel runs were the province of tug tank barges, while tankers handled the longer routes. But today long ocean-going routes are also covered by articulated tug barges (ATBs) and large barges. The ATB design provides stability, speed (up to 12 or 13 knots), and increased maneuverability over the traditional barge units, and they are large, at least 10,000 dead weight tons (DWT), which is the equivalent of about 75,000 barrels of diesel. These vessels have provided an alternative to tankers.
Of the approximately 300 vessels now in use, not all are capable of moving from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast due to size, and others would not likely be available in the short term due to other factors. While 50,000 barrel capacity would appear to be a minimum vessel size to serve this route, historically vessels moving product from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast range in size from about 80,000 to 145,000 barrels. Many of the smaller Jones Act vessels are used in New York Harbor to move product among different ports in the area and to transport product from the harbor to New England.
About ten Jones Act tankers are crude oil tankers used to haul Alaskan crude oil to the West Coast; other tankers and barges are involved in West Coast product movement. It is not clear that any of the product vessels normally used on the West Coast would be diverted temporarily or even permanently to serve a new East Coast need.