WJ Editorial

50-Foot Channel Is Huge News; Now Let’s Fund It Right

For the barge industry, the summer’s best news is probably the official opening of Olmsted Locks and Dam. But a close second might be the Corps of Engineers’ announcement of its approval of the plan to dredge a 50-foot channel in the Lower Mississippi River, from its current depth of 45 feet. Elected officials and industry leaders have long worked to increase the channel’s depth to 50 feet, the same depth of the expanded Panama Canal.

The project will provide a 50-foot draft from the Gulf of Mexico upriver 256 miles to the Port of Greater Baton Rouge. The material dredged from 30 miles of the project near the mouth of the Mississippi River will help create an estimated 1,462 acres of new marsh habitat.

The Corps approval comes after the tremendous expansion of U.S. oil and gas production over the last decade. The U.S. became the world’s largest producer of petroleum hydrocarbons in 2013 and has been the world’s largest producer of natural gas since 2009. In crude oil production, the United States is competing with Russia and Saudi Arabia to lead the world.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced that for the first time, the state of Texas exported more oil than it imported. Texas alone will soon be producing more oil than either Iran or Iraq, which would make it the world’s No. 3 producer if it were an independent country.

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The oil and gas boom resulting from hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has made the U.S. one of the world’s most attractive locations for petrochemical investments, a prospect that would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago.

The Lower Miss project is not only important for exports. The U.S. continues to be a top importer of oil as well, as its refineries, mostly built to handle heavier sour imported oil, continue to retool to adjust to the light sweet crude unlocked by fracking, a process guided and interrupted by market and price fluctuations. The deepening will allow larger deep-draft vessels to go to Baton Rouge with full loads.

The final proposal, which still must be approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget and Congress, includes a major expansion from the tentative plan submitted to public review in December 2016. In the approval memo, the project’s costs, including the Baton Rouge extension, are now estimated at $237.7 million, compared to a 2016 estimate of $88.9 million. Congress must include funding for the project in its fiscal year 2019 budget, and money for the increased cost of annual dredging – estimated at $17.7 million – in future annual budgets.

In the Director’s Report, Director of Civil Works James Dalton calls the project “economically justified and environmentally sustainable” and recommends approval of funding. The report identifies the benefit-to-cost ratio at 7.2 to 1 and calls the project one of national and international significance.

Even in an election year, a project like this should gain bipartisan support. We hope that Congress has learned the lessons of Olmsted and will provide timely and adequate funding.