The Suez and Panama canals are being expanded, but some ships still won’t fit into either

The Suez hullabaloo, November 1869.
The Suez hullabaloo, November 1869.
Image: US Library of Congress
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Today, it’s hard to grasp just how big a deal the Suez Canal was in its day and for decades beyond—although the illustration above, painted the day of the canal’s inauguration in 1869, gives some indication. In effect it was transportation’s version of the Internet: Along with the opening of the Panama Canal 45 years later, the Suez transformed the economics of making products, and of selling and buying them, building national economies in the process. At once, you could move stuff between Europe and Asia much faster, and much cheaper.

Now Egypt is about to unveil the biggest upgrade of the Suez since it revolutionized the mass movement of cargo (oil especially) and accelerated globalization a century and a half ago. A upgrade to the Panama Canal is also in the works.

What’s odd about the scale of the expansion of the two canals—the larger Suez is to open Aug. 6, and a bigger Panama next year—is that even after the improvements, neither will be able to accommodate the world’s largest oil and natural gas tankers, nor the biggest container vessels.

The world's largest liquefied natural gas tanker.
The Q-Max
Image: Nakilat

Technically, the Q-Max, the world’s largest class of liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers, pictured here, will fit in the expanded Suez—as long as it’s only partly loaded, says Simon Lisiecki, a former BP shipping executive and now a maritime consultant. But a partly loaded Q-Max won’t provide the intended economies of scale for its owner, Qatari LNG. And the ship won’t go through the expanded Panama Canal at all.

According to Vessels Value, a maritime consulting firm, the Panama also won’t accommodate the largest crude oil vessels, known as very large crude carriers (VLCCs).

The largest class of container vessels
Triple E
Image: Maersk

Nor will the Panama take the biggest container vessels. A large majority of the world’s cargo moves around the world stuffed into standard-size containers, which are then stacked on vessels. The largest such vessels are called the Triple E. They are the ones that won’t fit in the Panama, according to Rabinder Singh, a marine surveyor and consultant. Like the Q-Max, they will make it into the Suez if they are not loaded to capacity. (For perspective, that dot to the left of the Triple E pictured here is a man.).

None of this is to sniff at the accomplishments of the canal expansions. Experts say that Egypt, for one, has carried out the 11-month Suez upgrade astonishingly fast. Still, the work is nothing compared with the contemporary feats of engineering and scientific advances required to build the original Suez and Panama, and it leaves both canals with one noticeable shortcoming.

Does it matter? Joe Keefe, editor of Maritime Professional, tells Quartz that in terms of the US market, the Panama’s size limits aren’t a big deal—because American ports aren’t big enough for such large vessels anyway. In any case, if such a vessel were to show up, it could anchor at a distance and have its cargo offloaded in a few trips by smaller ships, he said.

Not all super-sized container ships are demonstrating such patience, though. Rather than parking offshore and ferrying stuff back and forth on landing ships, some big container vessels, frustrated with the laggards, are instead entirely bypassing American ports (paywall).

Transportation constraints could be especially problematic for the future of the LNG business. Since Ludwig Nobel invented the oil tanker in 1878, the freedom of movement and the ability to transport large volumes have been central to the economics of the energy sector.

There remains hope for more open transportation. Wang Jing, a Chinese lawyer, has announced plans to build a 175-mile canal through Nicaragua that would be large enough for such vessels. There also are the Northern Passages, the natural channels above Canada and Russia that are becoming gradually freer of ice because of global warming.

But if LNG is to become a truly global commodity, then the Q-Max probably needs to be able to go anywhere it wants to. Canals and ports, too, need the capacity to offload the giant container vessels.