COVID-19 Effects On Cargo Are Hard To Quantify

For a few weeks after the onset of lockdowns and restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis, some of the usual sources of barge data paused while offices reorganized. Now that data is beginning to flow again.

How are the effects of the crisis showing up in barge data? The answer is not simple. In at least one source of barge and cargo data, the effects of the coronavirus and recent oil price shocks are not showing up as strongly as had been expected. “We have not seen strong COVID-19 impacts” in commercial barge cargo data collected by the Corps of Engineers, “and we expected to,” according to Mark Sudol, director of the Navigation and Civil Works Decision Support Center at the Corps of Engineers.

The Corps collects and aggregates two types of data to monitor barge cargoes: Lock Performance Monitoring System data, which includes cargo tonnage data from locks; and reports from ports, which take longer to come in. In recent years, the Corps has been working to better integrate those two sources of data, and to include historic data to better put current figures in context. “In the lock performance data, — numbers of barges, cargo estimates and so on—we’re not really seeing that much of a change” from prior years, Sudol told The Waterways Journal. Sudol said that locks and dams have seen no disruptions in operations due to the COVID-19 virus.

One of the keenest customers of the Corps data is IHS Markit. Ken Eriksen, senior vice president, head of client advisory and development and head of energy and transportation at IHS Markit, said the barge data, now available through April, reflects several different factors.
Total barge tonnage year-over-year was down 4 percent in April compared to last April, after having been unchanged in January, up by 11 percent in February, and up by 6 percent in March.

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Broken down by commodity, the figures tell several stories. One of them is coal’s continued decline. Compared to last year, coal tonnages were down by 9 percent in January, unchanged in February, down 4 percent in March and down 17 percent in April.

Chemicals, on the other hand, were up 11 percent in February from a year ago, and up 20 percent in April. Petroleum and petroleum products were up 8 percent in February, up 10 percent in March and up 3 percent in April. Those figures likely reflected contracts purchased earlier, Eriksen said, and may also reflect some barge storage during a time when oil prices plunged due to a dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Farm barge cargoes were up, but that’s unsurprising given the extreme flood conditions of last year.

If the COVID-19 crisis and its effect on demand show up directly anywhere in the barge figures, it’s in the “other” category: cargoes other than coal, petroleum and farm products. That category—which includes manufactured goods, steel and steel coils—was up 9 percent in January, up 31 percent in February, up 20 percent in March and down 9 percent in April.