The worldwide petroleum trade and the importance of the chokepoints of oil flow.

Posted in Energy Security , Other | 11-Dec-06 | Author: Ioannis Michaletos

Ioannis Michaletos is WSN Editor South East Europe.

The aspects of energy security are numerous and in all respects interlocked with the political and social dynamics around the globe. One of the crucial factors when examining energy trade and security, is the existence of several highly important geostrategic areas; widely known as chokepoints. Areas such as the Suez Channel, Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz straits are of dramatic importance considering the volume of energy daily trespass their territory. Especially for the states importing energy, such as the Western countries, it is of vital importance to be able to monitor and predict political developments in and around those areas.

This article will present the key chokepoints of energy flow nowadays, along with supplementary data, key figures and commentary.

Chokepoints worldwide

1) Bosporusi

  • Territory: Turkey. A 17 Mile Sea corridor that divides Asiatic Turkey from the European one and it connects Black Sea with the Mediterranean (Aegean Sea)
  • Oil flow: 3.1 million barrels per day along with thousands of barrels of oil byproducts. The flow is mainly southward.
  • Destination: Western and Southern Europe.
  • Current status: The Bosporus straits have in their tightest par width of only half a mile and truly represent a chokepoint in that respect. There are some of the most difficult areas of navigation and the yearly traffic exceeds 50,000 ships, 10% of them oil tankers. The importance of those straits is great for Russia that exports a large segment of its oil from the Novorossiysk port and through Bosporus too its clients in the West.

According to the Montreux treatyii of 1936, the passing is free in time of piece and Turkey cannot impose control or prohibit transit of vessels of any nationality. Despite that Turkey has in recent years enacted environmental regulations (Due to continuous accidents) and has prohibited the transit of tankers over 200 meters. Moreover during wintertime the heavy climate contributes to considerable delays that cost dearly to the shipping companies and their clients. It is widely estimated that should the creation of the pipeline Burgas-Alexandoupoliiii becomes a reality in around 2012, the average Bosporus passage expenses will drop by some 8$ per Tn per every oil tanker.

2) Suez Channeliv

  • Territory: Egypt. It connects Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Oil flow: 3.8 million barrels per day Northward direction and 0.4 million barrels per day Southward.
  • Destination: Western Europe and USA.
  • Current status: Around 3,000 oil tankers transit each year the channel. There are construction works and designs aimed at enlarging the capacity of the Channel from the current 200,000 Tn “SUEZMAX” oil tanker type; to super tankers, up to 350,000 Tn. Moreover since 1977 along the Suez Channel, the Sumed pipeline operates, and has a capacity of maximum 2.5 million barrels per day. It was built specifically as an alternative to the Channel in cases of accidents, political or military crisis that would disrupt the function of Suez.

3) Hormuz Straightsv

  • Territory: Oman, Iran. It connects the Gulf with the Oman Gulf and the Arabic Sea (Indian Ocean)
  • Oil flow: 17 million barrels per day
  • Destination: Japan, China, USA, Western Europe.
  • Current status: This is the most important chokepoint worldwide, due to the tremendous volume of the oil flow. The recent crisis between USA-Iran is of importance when considering that these straights could be effectively blocked by small aeronautical forces, creating havoc in world economy.

Alternative routes in cases of conflicts are the Abqaiq-Yanbuvi gas pipeline, transferring LNG from Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea. It has a capacity of 300, 00 barrels per day. Also the petroline pipeline has a capacity of 5 million and transfers from East to West. In any case a crisis in the area of the Straights will most certainly increase considerably energy prices.

4) Bab el-Mandebvii

  • Territory: Djibouti/Eritrea/Yemen. It connects Red Sea with the Aden Gulf and the Arabic Sea.
  • Oil flow: 3 million barrels per day.
  • Destination: Europe, USA, East Asia
  • Current status: This is an area currently facing piracy and there it is a potential hot spot in relation to Islamic fundamentalism in neighboring countries and terrorism. In 2002 a French ship was attacked by Al- Qaeda presumablyviii. The importance of Bab el-Mandeb lies in its duality with the Suez Channel. Any development in those two chokepoints interrelates with each other. \

5) Malacca Straightix

  • Territory: Malaysia-Singapore. It connects Indian Ocean with South Chinese Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
  • Oil flow: 12 million barrels per day
  • Destination: Japan, China, S. Korea, Taiwan
  • Current status: The Straights are the single most important energy passage for the economies of East Asia. The narrowest point-The Philips Channel- has a width of just 1.5 miles and as a consequence there are considerable problems ranging from accidents to delays that affect the whole of Asia. Over 50,000 oil tankers pass through each year and as long as the Chinese economy is expanding, so will the importance of this chokepoint increasing.

6) Panama Channelx

  • Territory: Panama. It connects Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific one.
  • Oil flow: 0.5 million barrels per day.
  • Current status: The importance of the Panama Channel for the energy trade is not that great compared with the rest; nevertheless it could gain more relevance in the future. In case of a crisis in the Middle East the importation of oil to East Asia, could be facilitated by the Venezuela, Colombia and perhaps Texas and Louisiana. In such as case the Panama Channel would be the ideal passage point. Moreover a large export of Alaska oil to Europe would be accommodated by the Channel.

The worldwide energy chokepoints have a tremendous impact on oil prices and the stability of the economy. Thus it is not of coincidence that the West and most notably the USA have exercised influence in various occasions in order to safeguard those important corridors. Actually in our age all of these Channels and Straights belong to states that are either USA allies or enjoy cordial relations with the superpower. That also predicts the influence that the United Sates can exercise in the global economy, as well as, to pin point the parts of the planet that are deemed extremely important to loose influence upon.

Presently there are issues that concern the chokepoints. International piracy along with the assorted organized crime and terrorist organizations create nowadays the so-called "Hybrid criminal networks", as a RAND report acknowledgedxi. Therefore the monitoring of this type of criminal activity provides vital information on the transnational terrorism threats and their offshoots across the world. Also the current interrelation of global economic activity all over the world has created the need to constantly examine the status of political affairs in the neighboring states of the chokepoints. For instance every development relating to Iran –Like the nuclear issue-, has an impact on the chokepoint that this state is influencing, thus the global interest and the responsibility of every state in the area to safeguard energy supplies. The world has already become one in the economic sense of the word, and it is in everyone’s interest to secure energy transportation from the source to the consumer. Lastly, one could comprehend the long term power shifts by focusing on who is controlling the chokepoints and the energy flow as a consequence.