By Alex Binkley

The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC) and its shipper and shipping partners are looking at old and new possibilities for growing traffic. Transshipping Prairie crude oil to refineries in Quebec and Saint John as well as overseas customers, has been proposed before, and is still being looked at, says Bruce Hodgson, Director of Market Development for the Seaway Management Corp. “The dream isn’t going away.” Last fall, he told the Commons Transport Committee that shipping crude oil on the Seaway-Great Lakes is feasible. “We’ve worked very closely with the railways in developing the total supply chain.” Delivering crude in tank cars to Thunder Bay for loading on tankers means a much quicker turnaround of their cars for the railways rather than hauling the oil all the way to the St. Lawrence River. “The option we’ve been working on is Thunder Bay to Quebec City, and then transshipment into international markets,” Hodgson said. “We can be competitive.” A Seawaymax tanker can transport about 80,000 barrels of crude, which is about the equivalent of a unit train of crude.

Among the obstacles to this proposal are fears of an oil spill on the Great Lakes. Jean Aubry-Morin, SLSMC’s Vice-President of External Relations, said an emergency response system has been in place during the last 20 years that “is very robust and has been used as an example by several other agencies.” The last time it was used on the Seaway was in 2009 in the South Shore Canal. “In less than seven minutes, we had identified the situation and deployed a response team, which prevented any spills that could have damaged the environment in local communities,” he said. “We review our system on an ongoing basis.”

Michael Broad, President of The Shipping Federation of Canada, told the MPs that during the last ten years, there’s been a lot of tanker activity in Canadian waters. The Ship Oil Pollution Fund says there were no oil spills by any foreign-flag ship. “Most of the oil spills in Canada are from derelict vessels, abandoned vessels and that kind of thing.”

Meanwhile SLSMC is working with municipalities and businesses along the Welland Canal to see what industrial development possibilities could lead to future traffic, Hodgson told the Commons Transport Committee last fall. SLSMC manages the lands adjacent to the Seaway for the federal government.

SLSMC’s market development team brings together operators and investors to look for opportunities with the real estate and facilities along the Canal, he said. Two examples of how this process works are the redevelopment of the Port Weller dry docks, now being operated by Heddle Marine of Hamilton, and the Ramey’s Bend container terminal in Port Colborne, which received its first container shipments last fall and expects more business this year following the expansion of its facilities.

SLSMC is also looking at expanding the railway network along the canal, he said. “We have very good access into the U.S. from a highway standpoint, so we continue to see that as an opportunity.”

To assist business along the Welland plan their operations, SLSMC is working to boost data exchange capabilities to generate better information on ships arrivals. “That is an area we continue to work on, and we see technology moving forward as being very critical.” Turning the Port Weller dry docks over to a private operator followed the recognition of the need to diversify SLSMC’s revenue streams, he said. SLSMC worked with businesses beside the container terminal to get land to expand the facility so it had the capacity to serve the U.S. northeast market.

“We see opportunities in modal shift, such as moving traffic from the highways onto the water,” he said. “For example, there has been quite a change in the trucking industry in the U.S. with the electronic logbooks that have been introduced. “By the time a trucker coming out of the Ohio valley hits St. Catharines, he’s maxed out on his hours, so he’s going to have to take rest time. We’ve been approached with the question whether it makes sense to have a cross-lake truck ferry, for example, to go from St. Catharines over toward the Kingston area? We’ve been working on that to see if there’s an opportunity. “We think that short sea shipping can play an important role with the Highway 401 and what’s happening there from a congestion standpoint.”

Ian Hamilton, President and CEO of Port of Hamilton, which has assisted in the business development along the Welland process, said, “The challenge is finding the capacity to locate along Seaway property those new businesses that would utilize the Seaway.” Doing so “would then generate more cargo through the Seaway and, again, use the gateway to access international markets.”

SLSMC’s pitch to the Transport Committee resulted in a recommendation in its interim report to Parliament in late February. MPs agreed that Ottawa should amend SLSMC’s policies “with a view to encouraging greater economic development of the lands it manages including through longer-term leases or the establishment of an expedited process to divest lands that are underutilized.”