Europe petchems logistics costs up as Rhine barges only able to load at 40-60%

Author: Jonathan Lopez


MADRID (ICIS)--An extraordinarily dry November has brought down water levels on the River Rhine, preventing barges from fully loading and pushing petrochemicals logistics costs higher.

Water levels at the Kaub gauge station – the Rhine’s shallowest point – stood on Tuesday morning at 74cm, down from 88cm on 19 November.

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Source: Elwish consultancy

The Rhine Shipping Authority (WSA in its German acronym) told ICIS on Tuesday that at these water levels barges should load between 40-60% of their capacity, depending on size.

Because barges can only partially load, what could be transported in one barge with normal water levels may need two or more barges, increasing costs.

Potential higher costs in logistics due to the Rhine will add yet more woe for players moving product in northwest Europe, as it comes on top of the long-running issue of a shortage in truck drivers, which has worsened in recent months.

“We’re in a period of low water levels, which is typical for autumn. Nevertheless, it extends far into November this year,” said Florian Krekel, a spokesperson for the WSA.

“Autumn was very dry. Hopefully, November rainfalls are only delayed and do not fail complete[ly]. But, at the moment, no change is in sight.”

Krekel highlighted how the current low levels are, however, far from the lowest levels ever recorded at Kaub in 2018.

In autumn that year, northwest Europe suffered a severe drought, and Kaub’s gauge station measured levels at 25cm on 25 October 2018.

That had serious financial implications for petrochemicals companies, who took a hit in the hundreds of millions of euros due to higher logistical costs caused by the low water levels.

The Rhine acts as a true ‘motorway’ for petrochemicals in northwest Europe; barges navigating the Rhine carry key feedstocks and end products for many producers situated close by, including industrial heartlands in Germany and the logistics hubs of the Netherlands, where the river flows into the North Sea.

With road transportation becoming more difficult, barges navigating the River Rhine are especially key for petrochemicals because of the significant tonnages they can transport, compared to trucks or rail tank cars (RTCs).

Water levels on the Rhine have been low for weeks; at the end of October, both the WSA and petrochemicals sources were fearing an autumn of higher logistics costs due to low levels.

The current low levels follow historic high levels in July, when floods in southwest Germany prompted the extraordinary measure to close parts of the Rhine to navigation.

Front page picture: A baron the Rhine floating in front of Germany's chemicals major BASF flagship facilities in Ludwigshafen
Source: Ronald Wittek/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock