Assessing the Fallout of the Baltimore Bridge Collapse on the Energy Market

The recent collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge into the Patapsco River on March 26 has caused a temporary halt to all shipping traffic from the Port of Baltimore. A reader recently asked me how this might impact the energy markets.

First, the closure should have minimal impact on the transportation of more commonly used petroleum products. Ship tracking data indicates limited activity, with only one shipment of gasoline and three petroleum-related export cargos recorded at the port in 2023.

The port receives a modest quantity of refined petroleum products. Biodiesel, including biodiesel feedstock and other edible oils, constitutes the largest refined petroleum import, averaging 3,000 barrels per day (BPD) in 2023.

Additionally, Baltimore imports various other petroleum-derived products, such as fertilizers and chemicals. The port serves as the primary entry point for asphalt in the United States, with imports totaling about 4,000 BPD in 2023, sourced mainly from Canada. Asphalt, derived from crude oil, is used in road construction and roofing applications.

The Port of Baltimore also handles significant imports of urea ammonium nitrate, amounting to approximately 2,000 BPD in 2023. This liquid fertilizer, primarily imported from Russia, serves agricultural demand, particularly in Midwestern markets.

Due to its strategic location, Baltimore serves as a pivotal coastal port for distributing urea ammonium nitrate to key agricultural regions. However, other ports along the U.S. Atlantic Coast, such as Providence, Rhode Island; New York, New York; and Wilmington, North Carolina, also have the capacity to import asphalt.

But the biggest impact, according to the Energy Information Administration, will be in the coal markets. The Port of Baltimore stands as the second-largest exporting hub for coal in the United States, representing 28% of total coal exports in 2023, according to Census Bureau data. Only Norfolk, Virginia, also known as Hampton Roads, surpasses it in this regard.

EIA Coal Exports
Annual Coal Exports from the Port of Baltimore. ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION

Annual coal exports from the Port of Baltimore have typically hovered around 20 million short tons over the past five years, with a notable exception occurring in 2020 due to the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, exports surged to 28 million short tons in 2023, primarily driven by increased demand for U.S. coal in Asia.

The Port of Baltimore features two full-service terminals equipped to handle coal shipments: the Curtis Bay Coal Piers served by the CSX Railroad and the CONSOL Energy Baltimore Marine terminal served by both the CSX and Norfolk Southern Railroads. Its strategic location near the northern Appalachia coal fields in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia enhances its attractiveness for coal exports.

Steam coal, primarily used for electric power generation and industrial heating, constitutes the predominant type of coal exported from the Port of Baltimore. Metallurgical coal, utilized in steel production, also holds significance. Major destinations for U.S. steam coal from Baltimore include India and various European countries, while metallurgical coal exports primarily reach Asian markets such as Japan, China, and South Korea.

In conclusion, while the recent collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge has led to a temporary halt in shipping traffic from the Port of Baltimore, the impact on the transportation of commonly used petroleum products is expected to be minimal.

But the port’s strategic location and infrastructure ensure its importance in facilitating coal shipments destined for domestic and international markets. Previous projections were that total U.S. coal exports for 2024 would grow, but the current interruption in operations at the Baltimore port will likely influence export volumes for the year.

Follow Robert Rapier on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook