FMC could introduce emergency powers to alleviate port congestion

The US Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) is reported to be considering invoking its newly granted emergency powers under the 2022 reform of the Ocean Shipping Act to require data sharing among terminals, truckers, carriers, and other parts of the shipping industry.

The FMC said that it would consider if data sharing would help ease the ongoing difficulties of port congestion. The US Department of Transportation had already stated that its initiative to increase the flow of data across the supply chain was helping to address challenges.

The FMC stated at the beginning of a 30-day comment period that “the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 authorizes the Federal Maritime Commission to issue such an emergency order after seeking comments from the trade. If the commission issues an emergency order, common carriers and MTOs would be required to share directly with relevant shippers, rail carriers, or motor carriers information relating to cargo throughput and availability.”

The FMC agreed that key metrics, including the total number of containers on ships waiting offshore, average wait time for a berth, and dwell time had all improved at the major ports in recent months. However, the FMC highlighted that efforts to reduce congestion at one port often resulted in increases in wait times at neighbouring ports.

For example, on August 12th the Marine Exchange of Southern California said that only 12 containerships were heading to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Two containerships were in the anchorage while 10 were registered and travelling across the Pacific. That compared with 97 vessels at peak in January 2022.

In recent months that January 2022 congestion has shifted to US East Coast ports. About 35 container and cargo ships were waiting at both Charleston and Savannah and more than 12 were offshore for the Port of New York and in the anchorage leading to Baltimore and the ports in the Newport News-Hampton Roads area.

At the Port of Baltimore waiting times at the terminals had grown so severe that truck owner-operators staged a protest at the end of the week. They complained of waits up to eight hours, especially when returning empties to the yard. The port operator has said that congestion in the supply chain and a surge in container volumes passing through the port was to blame.

The FMC will have to consider three factors before invoking a data-sharing order. It will explore if the degree of congestion was having an adverse effect on the competitiveness and reliability of international ocean transport, and whether an emergency order was likely to help relieve the situation. The FMC is also seeking comment on the scope of the order, should the commission determine that it would help with the current congestion.

At a meeting of its Freight Logistics Optimization Works (FLOW) partnership, numbering 36 participants from the carriers to terminals, shippers, and truckers, the DoT said that the sharing of data was helping ease the supply chain disruptions.

The OSRA Act became law in June and gave the FMC authority to issue emergency orders for the first 18 months after the passage of the new legislation.

Congress gave the FMC authority to address congestion and to create a renewable emergency order lasting up to 60 days. Congress also gave the FMC a “to-do” list and a timeline for its actions.