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What would it take to permit the Panama Canal in 2017?

The Panama Canal, as seen from the bridge of the Rotterdam in February. (Win Gruening photo)


I was with 49 Alaska Republicans transiting the Panama Canal in February aboard the 780-foot M/S Rotterdam. We enjoyed many great events together and at one dinner, a fellow diner who I knew was in the government-authorization-seeking business, asked a question:

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What would it take, permit-wise, to build the Panama Canal today?

I can speculate with some accuracy on what it would take if the thing was proposed to be built in the United States. However, the Canal Zone, as it used to be called, is now entirely under the control of the country of Panama and I don’t know what kind of environmental review programs operate there.


It is darkly amusing to recall the history of the canal in this context. The area now known as the independent country of Panama was actually part of Colombia at the time France initiated construction of their attempt at a canal. Remnants of their efforts can still be seen on the eastern side.

The French effort fizzled after millions of francs and 20,000 lives were expended. The country of Colombia was surely disappointed and would have seen new hope when America came calling a few years later.   That hope was not enough for Colombia to consent to the American demand that it must control the canal if it was going to make the investment.

No deal seemed possible and that would have ended the matter except that somehow the province of Panama, with encouragement from then-President Teddy Roosevelt, revolted – nearly bloodlessly – to gain its independence. Another few years of work and 5,000 more lives, and we had a canal.

The canal makes money. The passage fee for our ship was $300,000, according the cruise director (a carbon copy of the cruise director from the Love Boat TV show.) The Panama Canal has revenues of $2 billion and costs of only $600 million per year according to The Economist. That margin is what paid for the new locks and other improvements that recently opened.

Fomenting revolutions and annexing territory is seen as rude today, except for Russia, where style points are still awarded for such activity. At any rate, once the canal zone was in a country that wanted the canal built and was willing to endure US control, no other permitting would have been needed.

The 1890 Rivers and Harbors Act, by which the Corps of Engineers regulates structures in waterways, would not have applied in Panama and none of the other more recent legislation, like the Clean Water Act, existed at the time. All you needed post-revolution, was enough snoose and dynamite, in the words of the Michael Heney, who built the White Pass and Yukon Railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse.


So, what if you wanted to build a big canal across part of the USA to accommodate ocean-going ships? Let’s say across Florida from Jacksonville to a fictitious industrial port city of south of Tallahassee on the Gulf Coast. Your reason is to shorten the shipping distance between those two cities and between our fictitious city and Ireland. This would knock off about 1,200 nautical miles from either route, greatly benefitting the whisky and rum trade.

Alaska thinks big too and began work on permitting for the Juneau Access Project several years ago. The result, now called the Lynn Canal Highway, could accommodate much higher volumes of traffic at much lower expense to the traveling public.

On the national scene, private companies are thinking big and trying to build a couple of new pipelines to make crude oil transport safer.

Alaska and the pipeline companies set off gamely to pursue authorizations for their projects. All three are experiencing opposition from environmental groups. Claims were made that there would be air and water pollution, habitat loss, and the creation of risk to the public. The sponsors batted down these claims with science, design and engineering but resistance continues anyway. Why that is will be discussed below.

Would our trans-Florida canal encounter resistance? Using locks and various water control measures, the existing trans-Florida canal (at the south end through Lake Okeechobee) was built without too much opposition but it is a small canal used primarily for recreational watercraft.

The same measures could be used to protect water quality and habitat for the Jacksonville canal as well. So, resistance based on legal requirements and environmental impacts could be dealt with but would the resistance end there?

It depends. The federal authorization system is clumsy and slow but you can get there if you persevere. I have sought about 40 Corps of Engineers permits in my 20 years as a consultant and gotten every one of them.   Some were initially resisted but on valid and legally relevant concerns. Once I addressed those concerns, I got my permits.

That is not the case for the Juneau Access Project and the two pipelines. The resistance to all three is based – in my experienced and semi-humble opinion – on issues other than what the law requires. The resistance to the pipelines is not based on fear of water pollution (although that is a scapegoat) but rather on resistance to the use of fossil fuels. There is nothing in federal law that says hatred of oil is a valid basis for denying an authorization.

The resistance to the Juneau Access Project might overtly be based on fear of air pollution but that issue was dealt with. No, the real reason is the desire to thwart economic expansion and growth in Southeast Alaska. That was why the timber industry was attacked and why the cruise ship industry was attacked.

So, is there a hidden or legally non-relevant agenda that would thwart our trans-Florida canal?

Very likely there is and I think such a proposal would draw ire from the anti-corporation crowd that riots in Seattle and Davos and other places where those world economic conferences are held.

Again, the resistance would take the form of overt concerns about environmental impacts but would be fueled by hatred of corporations and economic growth around the world.

I think this would also be true if you wanted the USA to build a new Panama Canal today. The whole panoply of federal regulations would very likely apply, even in a foreign country.

The US Navy has been engaged for years in an environmental study for exercising in the northern Pacific Ocean, far from US territory. The key concern, legally, is that a federal agency, the Navy, is proposing to engage in a “major federal action” and it is that action, not its location, that triggers the need for federal environmental review.

So, the first thing to do, if you want to build a giant project, is you must persuade Congress to give a waiver of the type that was granted so long ago for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Even then, the anti-growth forces were rampant, along with the lunatic fringe and TAPS would never have been built without a congressional get-out-of-jail free card.

From a political opportunity perspective, it might be a good idea, right now, to order up a whole deck of them.

Murray Walsh owns a government permitting consulting company and has been involved in land use management and planning for more than 40 years. He lives in Juneau.

Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

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