Chokepoints are narrow channels along widely used global sea routes, some so narrow that restrictions are placed on the size of vessel that can navigate through them. They are a critical part of global energy security due to the high volume of oil traded through their narrow straits.
In 2009, total world oil production amounted to approximately 84 million barrels per day (bbl/d), and about one-half was moved by tankers on fixed maritime routes. With the onset of the global economic downturn that began in mid-2008, world oil demand declined, and along with it the volumes of oil shipped to markets, both via pipelines and along maritime routes such as these chokepoints. By volume of oil transit, the Strait of Hormuz leading out of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans are two of the world’s most strategic chokepoints.
The international energy market is dependent upon reliable transport. The blockage of a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs. In addition, chokepoints leave oil tankers vulnerable to theft from pirates, terrorist attacks, and political unrest in the form of wars or hostilities as well as shipping accidents which can lead to disastrous oil spills.
Strait of Hormuz
The Strait of Hormuz is by far the world’s most important chokepoint with an oil flow of 15.5 million barrels per day in 2009.
Located between Oman and Iran, the Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint due to its daily oil flow of 15.5 million barrels in 2009, down from a peak of 17 million bbl/d in 2008. Flows through the Strait in 2009 are roughly 33 percent of all seaborne traded oil (40 percent in 2008), or 17 percent of oil traded worldwide.
On average, 13 crude oil tankers per day passed eastbound through the Strait in 2009 (compared with an average of 18 in 2007-2008), with a corresponding amount of empty tankers entering westbound to pick up new cargos. More than 75 percent of these crude oil exports went to Asian markets, with Japan, India, South Korea, and China representing the largest destinations.
At its narrowest point, the Strait is 21 miles wide, but the width of the shipping lane in either direction is only two miles, separated by a two-mile buffer zone. The Strait is deep and wide enough to handle the world’s largest crude oil tankers, with about two-thirds of oil shipments carried by tankers in excess of 150,000 deadweight tons.
Closure of the Strait of Hormuz would require the use of longer alternate routes at increased transportation costs. Alternate routes include the 745 mile long Petroline, also known as the East-West Pipeline, across Saudi Arabia from Abqaiq to the Red Sea. The East-West Pipeline has a nameplate capacity of 4.8 million bbl/d. The Abqaiq-Yanbu natural gas liquids pipeline, which runs parallel to the Petroline to the Red Sea, has a 290,000-bbl/d capacity.
A new bypass is currently being constructed across the United Arab Emirates that is expected to be completed in 2011. The 1.5 million bbl/d Habshan-Fujairah pipeline will cross the emirate of Abu Dhabi and end at the port of Fujairah just south of the Strait. Other alternate routes could include the deactivated 1.65-million bbl/d Iraqi Pipeline across Saudi Arabia (IPSA), and the deactivated 0.5 million-bbl/d Tapline to Lebanon. Additional oil could also be pumped north via the Iraq-Turkey pipeline to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea, but volumes have been limited by the closure of the Strategic pipeline linking north and south Iraq.
Strait of Malacca
The Strait of Malacca, located between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. Malacca is the shortest sea route between Persian Gulf suppliers and the Asian markets –notably China, Japan, South Korea, and the Pacific Rim. Oil shipments through the Strait of Malacca supply China and Indonesia, two of the world’s fastest growing economies. It is the key chokepoint in Asia with an estimated 13.6 million bbl/d flow in 2009, down slightly from its peak of 14 million bbl/d in 2007.
At its narrowest point in the Phillips Channel of the Singapore Strait, Malacca is only 1.7 miles wide creating a natural bottleneck, as well as potential for collisions, grounding, or oil spills. According to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre, piracy, including attempted theft and hijackings, is a constant threat to tankers in the Strait of Malacca, although the number of attacks has dropped due to the increased patrols by the littoral states authorities since July 2005.
Over 60,000 vessels transit the Strait of Malacca per year. If the strait were blocked, nearly half of the world’s fleet would be required to reroute around the Indonesian archipelago through Lombok Strait, located between the islands of Bali and Lombok, or the Sunda Strait, located between Java and Sumatra.
There have been several proposals to build bypasses to reduce tanker traffic through the Strait of Malacca. Construction began in 2009 to build a 240,000 bbl/d crude oil pipeline from Burma to China that could eventually be expanded.
The Suez Canal is located in Egypt, and connects the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea, covering 120 miles. Petroleum (both crude oil and refined products) accounted for 16 percent of Suez cargos, measured by cargo tonnage, in 2009. An estimated 1.0 million bbl/d of crude oil and refined petroleum products flowed northbound through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea in 2009, while 0.8 million bbl/d travelled southbound into the Red Sea. This represents a decline from 2008, when 1.6 million bbl/d of oil transited northbound to Europe and other developed economies.
Almost 35,000 ships transited the Suez Canal in 2009, of which about 10 percent were petroleum tankers. With only 1,000 feet at its narrowest point, the Canal is unable to handle the VLCC (Very Large Crude Carriers) and ULCC (Ultra Large Crude Carriers) class crude oil tankers. The Suez Canal Authority is continuing enhancement and enlargement projects on the canal, and extended the depth to 66 ft in 2010 to allow over 60 percent of all tankers to use the Canal.
The 200-mile long SUMED Pipeline, or Suez-Mediterranean Pipeline provides an alternative to the Suez Canal for those cargos too large to transit the Canal. The pipeline moves crude oil northbound from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and is owned by Arab Petroleum Pipeline Co., a joint venture between the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC), Saudi Aramco, Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC, and Kuwaiti companies. Transit through the pipeline declined from approximately 2.3 million bbl/d of crude oil in 2007 to 1.1 million bbl/d in 2009.
Closure of the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline would divert tankers around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, adding 6,000 miles to transit.
Strait of Bab el-Mandab
The Strait of Bab el-Mandab is a chokepoint between the horn of Africa and the Middle East, and a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. It is located between Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, and connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Most exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal and SUMED pipeline also pass through the Bab el-Mandab.
An estimated 3.2 million bbl/d flowed through this waterway in 2009 (vs. 4 million bbl/d in 2008) toward Europe, the United States, and Asia. The majority of traffic, about 1.8 million bbl/d, moved northbound through the Bab el-Mandab en route to the Suez/SUMED complex.
The Bab el-Mandab is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, making tanker traffic difficult and limited to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Strait could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or Sumed Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa. This would effectively engage spare tanker capacity, and add to transit time and cost.
The Strait of Bab el-Mandab could be bypassed via the East-West oil pipeline, which crosses Saudi Arabia with a nameplate capacity of 4.8 million bbl/d. However, southbound oil traffic would still be blocked. In addition, closure of the Bab el-Mandab would block non-oil shipping from using the Suez Canal, except for limited trade within the Red Sea region.
Security became a concern of foreign firms doing business in the region, after a French tanker was attacked off the coast of Yemen by terrorists in October 2002. In recent years, this region has also seen rising piracy, and Somali pirates continue to attack vessels off the northern Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea including the Bab el-Mandab.
The Bosporus and Dardanelles: Turkish Straits
The Bosporus and Dardanelles comprise the Turkish Straits and divide Asia from Europe. The Bosporus connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles links the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. The 17-mile long waterway located in Turkey supplies Western and Southern Europe with oil from the Caspian Sea Region.
An estimated 2.9 million bbl/d flowed through this passageway in 2009, of which over 2.5 million bbl/d was crude oil. The ports of the Black Sea are one of the primary oil export routes for Russia and other former Soviet Union republics. Oil shipments through the Turkish Straits decreased from over 3.4 million bbl/d at its peak in 2004 to 2.6 million bbl/d in 2006 as Russia shifted crude oil exports toward the Baltic ports. Traffic through the Straits has increased again as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan crude production and exports rose.
Only half a mile wide at its narrowest point, the Turkish Straits are one of the world’s most difficult waterways to navigate due to its sinuous geography. With 50,000 vessels, including 5,500 oil tankers, passing through the straits annually it is also one of the world’s busiest chokepoints.
Turkey has raised concerns over the navigational safety and environmental threats to the Straits. Commercial shipping has the right of free passage through the Bosporus Straits in peacetime, although Turkey claims the right to impose regulations for safety and environmental purposes. Bottlenecks and heavy traffic also create problems for oil tankers in the Bosporus Straits. While there are no current alternate routes for westward shipments from the Black and Caspian Sea region, there are several pipeline projects in various phases of development underway.
The Panama Canal is an important route connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The Canal is 50 miles long, and only 110 feet wide at its narrowest point called Culebra Cut on the Continental Divide. About 14,000 vessels transit the Canal annually, of which more than 60 percent (by tonnage) are for traffic to and from the United States.
Closure of the Panama Canal would greatly increase transit times and costs adding over 8,000 miles of travel. Vessels would have to reroute around the Straits of Magellan, Cape Horn and Drake Passage over the tip of South America.
However, the Panama Canal is not a significant route for petroleum transit or for U. S. petroleum imports. Roughly one-fifth of the traffic through the canal (measured by both transits and tonnage) was by tankers. According to the Panama Canal Authority, 0.8 million bbl/d of crude and petroleum products were transported through the canal in 2009, of which 620,000 bbl/d was refined products, and the rest crude oil. Most petroleum traffic passed from north (Atlantic) to South (Pacific).
However, the relevance of the Panama Canal to the global oil trade has diminished, as many modern tankers are too large to travel through the canal. Some oil tankers, such as the ULCC (Ultra Large Crude Carriers) class tankers, can be nearly five times larger than the maximum capacity of the canal. The largest vessel that can transit the Panama Canal is known as a PANAMAX-size vessel (ships ranging from 50,000 – 80,000 dead weight tons in size and no wider than 108 ft.)
In order to make the canal more accessible, the Panama Canal Authority began an expansion program to be completed by end-2014. However, while many larger tankers will be able to transit the canal after 2014, some ULCC’s will still be unable to make the transit.
The Trans-Panama Pipeline (TPP – Petroterminal de Panama, S.A.) is located outside the former Canal Zone near the Costa Rican border and runs from the port of Charco Azul on the Pacific Coast to the port of Chiriquie Grande, Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean. The pipeline was built in 1982, with the original purpose being to facilitate crude oil shipments from Alaska’s North Slope to refineries in the Caribbean and the U.S. Gulf Coast. However, in 1996, the TPP was shut down as oil companies began shipping Alaskan crude along alternative routes. Since 1996, there were intermittent requests and proposals to utilize the TPP.
In August 2009, TPP completed a project to reverse its flows in order to enable it to carry oil from the Caribbean to the Pacific. However, by the end of 2009 the 600,000 bbl/d crude oil pipeline was only running at about 50 percent of capacity. Colombia’s Ecopetrol, as well as some African producers, have used the pipeline to send oil to the U.S. West Coast. BP and Tesoro also have contracts to use the pipeline. TPP is expanding its capacity to 1 million bbl/d by 2010, and building five new tanks with capacity to store 3.4 million barrels of oil, with three units being built in the Pacific and the remaining two in the Atlantic side.
An estimated 3.3 million bbl/d flowed westward through this waterway in 2009 to European markets, up from 2.4 million bbl/d in 2005. Russia has increasingly been shifting its crude oil exports to its Baltic ports, especially the relatively new port of Primorsk, which accounted for half of the exports through the Straits.
An additional 0.3 million bbl/d of crude oil, primarily from Norway, flows eastward to Scandinavian markets.
About one-third of the westward exports through the Straits are for refined products, coming from Baltic Sea ports such as Tallinn (Muuga), Venstpils, and St. Petersburg.