World Oil Transit Choke Points

The narrow channels widely used across the global sea routes are called chokepoints. The chokepoints have a very high volume of oil traded through their narrow straits and are a critical part of Global energy security. A 90 million barrels per day (bbl/d) oil is produced all over world, out of which half is moved by tankers on fixed maritime routes. By the volume of the oil transport, Strait of Hormuz which leads out to Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans are two of the world’s most strategic chokepoints.

Blockage of the choking points can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs, thus affecting the world economy. Here is a brief discussion of the above:

Strait of Hormuz

Strait of Hormuz is world’s most important chokepoint with an oil flow of almost 17 million barrels per day in 2011. This is roughly 35 percent of all seaborne traded oil, or almost 20 percent of oil traded worldwide. The strait is located between Oman and Iran, and connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. The narrowest point of 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.

Alternative Routes to Strait of Hormuz:

  • The alternate routes to the Strait of Hormuz are some oil pipelines in the region. One of them is the 745 mile long Petroline, also known as the East-West Pipeline, across Saudi Arabia from Abqaiq to the Red Sea.
  • This pipeline has a capacity of 5 million bbl/d. The second alternative is the Abqaiq-Yanbu natural gas liquids pipeline, which runs parallel to the Petroline to the Red Sea. This pipeline has 0.29 million bbl/d capacity.
  • Then, one more alternative is the Iraq-Turkey pipeline or the Kirkuk–Ceyhan Oil Pipeline to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea. It has very limited scope as it has been prone to attacks and frequent halts.

Strait of Malacca

Strait of Malacca, located between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. It is the shortest sea route between the Middle East and growing Asian markets – notably China, Japan, South Korea, and the Pacific Rim.

Malacca is a key chokepoint in Asia with a peak flow of 14 million bbl/d (2007). The narrowest point in Strait of Malacca is the Phillips Channel of the Singapore Strait. The Phillipse Channel only 1.7 miles wide creating a natural bottleneck, as well as potential for collisions, grounding, or oil spills. The region is also prone to piracy and hijackings, though the incidents have dropped significantly in recent years.

Alternative Routes to Strait of Malacca

If Malacca Strait is blocked, around half of the world’s fleet would be required to use alternative routes around the Indonesian archipelago via Lombok Strait, located between Bali and Lombok. The second alternative is the Sunda Strait, located between Java and Sumatra.

Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is located in Egypt, and connects the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea, spanning 120 miles. Closing of Suez Canal results in addition of estimated 6000 miles of transit around the continent of Africa.

Via Suez Canal, the petroleum transit volume was around 2 million bbl/d, or just below five percent of seaborne oil trade in 2010. Its narrowest point is only 1000 ft wide and this canal is unable to handle the VLCC (Very Large Crude Carriers) and ULCC (UltraLarge Crude Carriers) class crude oil tankers.

Alternatives to Suez Canal

The most important alternative to Suez Canal is the SUMED Pipeline which runs from the Ain Sukhna terminal on the Gulf of Suez to offshore Sidi Kerir, Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea.

It provides an alternative to the Suez Canal for transporting oil from the Persian Gulf region to the Mediterranean.

However, if SUMED Pipeline is also closed that the transit would need to be diverted around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, adding approximately 6,000 miles to transit, increasing both costs and shipping time.

Bab-el-Mandab

Bab el-Mandab strait is a chokepoint between the horn of Africa and the Middle East. It makes 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 need to pass through the Bab el-Mandab. The Bab el-Mandab is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, making tanker traffic difficult.

Alternative routes to Bab-el-Mandab

If the Bab el-Mandab is closed, it could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa. One bypass to the strait is the East-West oil pipeline, which crosses Saudi Arabia.

Bosporous

The two straits of Turkey viz. Bosporus and Dardanelles divide Asia from Europe.

The Bosporous or Bosphorus or the Istanbul Strait is world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation. The strategic importance of Bosporous lies in the increased oil exports from the Caspian sea region. Today, it is one of the busiest and most dangerous chokepoints in the world supplying Western and Southern 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. Bosporous is only half a mile wide at its narrowest point.

Alternatives to Bosporous:

As of now, there are no alternate routes for westward shipments from the Black and Caspian Sea region, there are several pipeline projects in various phases of development.

Panama Canal

Panama Canal is an important route connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The Gaillard Cut is an 8-1/2 mile excavation through the Continental Divide, connecting Gatun Lake to the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side. The cut was originally 300 feet wide, but was widened in the 1930s. The cut has been widened several more times over the years. At present the width is over 600ft.

Alternatives to Panama Canal:

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.

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