NOTEBOOK: Chokepoints in oil products shipping routes
Something like half of the world’s total oil/petroleum supplies are moved by large tankers along set maritime routes. Many of these routes pass through constricted areas and form significant, and vulnerable, maritime chokepoints. There are eight recognised major oil chokepoints throughout the world and if any one of these chokepoints were disrupted, ships would need to travel thousands of miles to reach an alternate route.
Strait of Hormuz - the world’s primary oil chokepoint.
Located between Oman and Iran, the Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Oil from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, and Iraq all pass through here and head mostly towards Asia, although tankers can also head west towards the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.
At its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is 21 miles wide, but the width of the shipping lane in either direction is only two miles wide, separated by a two-mile buffer zone. The Strait of Hormuz is deep and wide enough to handle the world’s largest crude oil tankers.
Most potential options to bypass Hormuz are currently not operational. Only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) presently have pipelines able to ship crude oil outside of the Persian Gulf and have additional pipeline capacity to circumvent the Strait of Hormuz.
Strait of Malacca
The Strait of Malacca, located between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, is the shortest waterway which connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Fuel from the Middle East heads primarily towards Indonesia, China, and Japan.
The Strait of Malacca is also one of the most narrow chokepoints in the world. Its narrowest point is only 1.7 miles wide, which creates a natural bottleneck for shipping, with potential for collisions, grounding, or oil spills. If the Strait of Malacca were blocked, nearly half of the world’s fleet would be required to reroute around the Indonesian archipelago. Rerouting would tie up global shipping capacity, adding to shipping costs and potentially having a significant impact on energy prices.
Cape of Good Hope
The Cape of Good Hope is located at the southernmost tip of Africa. It is not technically a chokepoint since it’s open on one side but it a significant transit point for oil tanker shipments around a critical trade route.
Crude oil moves around the Cape of Good Hope in both directions. Eastbound flows destined for Asian markets and westbound flows mostly destined for the Americas and originating from the Middle East.
The Cape of Good Hope is also an alternative sea route for bypassing the Gulf of Aden, Bab el-Mandeb Straits, and/or the Suez Canal. However, diverting vessels around the Cape of Good Hope would increase costs and shipping time, adding approximately 2,700 miles to transit from Saudi Arabia to the United States.
The Bab el-Mandab is one of the most precarious oil chokepoints in the world right now, situated between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, and it is a strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The strait 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 Bab el-Mandeb.
The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments. Closure of the Bab el-Mandeb could keep tankers from the Persian Gulf from reaching the Suez Canal or SUMED Pipeline, diverting them around the southern tip of Africa. In addition, European and North African southbound oil flows could no longer take the most direct route to Asian markets via the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb.
Oil prices took a recent jolt after the Yemeni government collapsed, raising the possibility of a security crisis in the Bab el-Mandab.
The Danish Straits, formed out of a series of channels passing around Danish Islands, connects the Baltic Sea in the east to the North Sea in the west. They are an important route for Russian oil exports to Europe. The EIA estimates that 42% of all oil shipped through the Danish Straits originated from the Russian port of Primorsk.
The Suez Canal passes through Egypt and connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Oil exports from the Persian Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain) accounts for some 80% percent of Suez Canal northbound oil flows towards European and North American markets. The remaining southbound flows are primarily toward Asian markets.
The Suez Canal was expanded in 2010 to allow 60% of all tankers in the world to effectively pass through but it is unable to handle Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC) and fully laden Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) class crude oil tankers. Security also remains a primary concern to cargo ships passing through the region.
Turkish Straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles)
The Turkish Straits, including the Bosporus and Dardanelles waterways, divide Asia from Europe. The Bosporus is a 17-mile long waterway connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The Dardanelles is a 40-mile waterway connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Both are located in Turkey and supply Western and Southern Europe with oil from Russia and the Caspian Sea Region.
Only half a mile wide at the narrowest point, the Turkish Straits are among the world’s most difficult waterways to navigate because of their sinuous geography. About 48,000 vessels transit the straits each year, making this area one of the world’s busiest maritime chokepoints.
The Panama Canal is an important route connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean and ultimately to the Atlantic. The Canal is 50 miles long and only 110 feet wide at its narrowest point. Alternatives to the Panama Canal include the Straits of Magellan, Cape Horn, and Drake Passage at the southern tip of South America, but these routes would significantly increase transit times and costs, adding about 8,000 miles of travel.
(Collated and redacted from various sources)
The Strait of Malacca: