“Foreign exporters’ access to the American market and our consumers is a privilege, not a right. Cargo vessels looking to offload foreign-made products and profit off West Coast ports must provide opportunities for American exports in return. Our legislation would put American exports at the front of the line at our ports to support American businesses and workers.”
This is the main premise under which Congressmen John Garamendi (D-CA03), Jim Costa (D-CA16), and Mike Thompson (D-CA05) introduced the “American Port Access Privileges Act” (H.R.8243) to put U.S. exporters at the front of the line in US ports and support the American economy..
What is American Port Access Privileges Act..??
As per a press release from Congressman Garamendi, The American Port Access Privileges Act (H.R.8243) would ensure fair trade for U.S. businesses and keep hard-won foreign markets accessible to California’s agricultural exporters by:
- Codifying the current preferences for military, Jones Act, and other US-flagged vessels in place at many major American ports.
- Establishing a secondary berthing preference for ocean-going commercial vessels servicing multiple ports in the United States or with significant cargo bookings of American exports. This new preferential berthing will reward ocean carriers that serve both American importers and American exporters by moving those vessels to the front of the queue for unloading and loading. It will similarly incentivize ocean carriers to make second-leg voyages to ports like the Port of Oakland, which is critical for California’s agricultural exporters.
- Ensuring that the new preferential berthing for export carrying-vessels would never interfere with U.S. Coast Guard orders for commercial vessels, port safety, or collective bargaining agreements for port workers.
- Requiring that export-carrying vessels seeking preferential berthing report cargo bookings at least 7 days in advance to port operators.
- Authorizing the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics to collect data on berthing and cargo practices at U.S. ports. This will evaluate ocean carriers’ practices for port calls and cargo bookings, as well as the impact of preferential berthing afforded under the bill.
The introduction of the American Port Access Privileges Act follows the recent passing of the Ocean Shipping Reform Act which was designed to support the growth and development of U.S. exports and promote reciprocal trade in the foreign commerce of the United States.. The jury is out on whether the Ocean Shipping Reform Act 2022 will address US supply chain disruptions or not..
US Ports export volumes
The focus of the Bill seems to be on the promotion of exports out of USA in general and agri exports in particular specially through the Port of Oakland..
If we look at the export statistics and at the current average export volume compared to the past 5,10,15 years and since the pandemic, we can see the drop in export volumes..
There has been several discussions around the carriers sacrificing US exports in favour of empty containers back to Asia..
But if we look a closer look at the volumes, the increase in outbound empty volumes corresponds to the increase in import full volumes as carriers are forced to move out more and more of the empties.. The decrease in exports as a % of imports since 2009 corresponds with this increase in outbound empty containers..
As we have seen, since 2020, US ports faced a deluge of full import containers driven by the pandemic induced demand, choking up yard spaces in and out of ports, choking up warehouses with inventories (literally) going upto the roof, empty containers sitting on chassis as ports were overfull and could not accept empties, carriers trying to clear out more empties to make way for backed up vessels to bring in more import full containers to start the vicious cycle again..
While the American Port Access Privileges Act is advocating for preferential berthing for ocean carriers that serve both American importers and American exporters, it might be easier said than done as majority of the ocean carriers calling USA ports are non-US flagged and non-US owned..
US flagged ships make up for less than 0.5% of the global fleet was less than 0.5% as per Bureau of Transportation Statistics..
There are concerns that actions of preferential berthing could be construed as interference on the part of the US Government and its oversight bodies in matters of business, as it may involve them influencing vessel schedules of carriers operating in the US market to achieve above (either directly or indirectly)..
Impact of Port performance on American Port Access Privileges Act
Back to exports, while the push for preference of export cargoes and preferential berthing suggested by the American Port Access Privileges Act is a good move to assist US exporters, authorities need to pay attention to a KEY ISSUE and that is the performance of US ports which remains a matter of concern..
Whether the vessels are ocean-going commercial vessels servicing multiple ports in the United States or vessels with significant bookings of American exports, ultimately all vessels are calling the same ports/container terminals in the USA which have been hampered by poor productivity and operational inefficiencies..
Although the main US gateway ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles have been operating at peak capacity handling record volumes since 2021, the Container Port Performance Index (CPPI) 2021 by the World Bank and S&P Global placed these two ports dead last at 369 and 370 out of 370 ports in terms of efficiency.. Oakland came in at 359 out of 370 ports on the list..
The San Pedro Bay ports which bore the brunt of the high port congestion in 2021 account for between 40-42% of container traffic coming into the USA a lot of which comes from the East..
The CPPI is based on metrics such as crane moves per hour, and berth time of vessels in port.. US ports have been lacking in these areas compared to their Asian counterparts and many experts are of the view that automation could be a solution.. Port inefficiencies are also the reason why many services have cancelled their calls to Oakland in particular..
Of all the main US ports considered, if we take a look at the TOTAL (import, export, empty) volume the ports handled between Jan 2020 and May 2022, we can see that all ports except Baltimore have shown an increase in total volume handled..
But more importantly, all ports have shown a huge increase in the days that vessels spend working in the port..
As the above Act is aimed at exports, if we take a look specifically at exports, only Long Beach and Savannah showed an increase in export volumes between Jan 2020 and May 2022 while ALL ports showed an increase in the number of days that the vessels spend working in port for the same period (New York and Baltimore volume figures are based on Apr 2022)..
In both cases, the increases in port stay days are disproportionate to the increase in volumes..
Ocean Carrier & intermodal reliability
Carriers are already struggling to maintain carrier schedule reliability and forced to blank sailings across all main routes due to delays, port congestion, increased transit times and recently drop in freight rates..
If the port stay for the vessels increase, there will be delays in the schedule rotation causing backlog of vessels and volumes which will create further supply chain disruptions..
The solution, without compromising volumes, would of course be to ensure that port efficiency at US ports is increased so there are no delays due to possible increase in export volumes if the Act is implemented..
The other issue plaguing the US exporters is poor intermodal service reliability and the appropriate positioning of chassis.. As US agri exporters are generally located in the US hinterland, they would need empty containers to be made available to them at these locations for packing exports..
In the recent past, exporters have been struggling to access empty containers in these locations as importers seem to be unpacking their cargo at the coastal regions and sending the cargo on trucks and returning the empty containers in the coastal regions instead of taking the full containers hinterland, due to service reliability issues with intermodal rail networks..
There are currently several issues facing the US supply chains – lack of rail availability, more empty containers loaded out than exports, full import containers overstaying their welcome in various ports/terminals, carrier schedule reliability, port inefficiencies, drop in consumer demand, high inflation, bloated inventories, high ocean freight rates (although spot rates are dropping), uncertain labour negotiations, demurrage and detention charges and more..
Actions from the Federal Government and its oversight bodies since 2020 in various areas are a welcome sign that the supply chain issues that have been long plaguing the US markets are being looked at seriously..
However, issues such as the failure of the ILWU and PMA to reach an agreement after the contract expired on 30th June is of concern to many in the industry, although both sides have committed to continuing normal operations at the port..
In terms of the proposed implementation of the American Port Access Privileges Act, the key and tough question that the lawmakers must currently ask is, Whether the US ports and supply chains are geared to improve their efficiency and handle additional export volumes without compromising the already stressed carrier vessel schedules, which can further impact supply chains..??