December 09, 2009

The Strait and Narrow: Top Five Energy Chokepoints

For today’s Top 5 list I decided to examine the most prominent energy chokepoints around the world. Since shocks to oil transit systems in any one region can affect prices worldwide, it’s good practice to know the basics of these chokepoints.

The Strait of Hormuz

Perhaps the best-known and most fretted-over chokepoint is the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The reason is simple: about 20 percent of the world's traded oil (between 16 and 17 billion barrels per day) transits this passage, which is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. Hormuz_Small.gifThere are also potential dangers specific to the Strait of Hormuz, namely Iran’s oft-analyzed potential to mine the strait to temporarily slow or stop freighter traffic. Caitlin Talmadge’s 2008 International Security article gave an open-source technical explanation (pdf) for how the strait could be mined, and a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence examines Iran’s overall naval strategy in the Gulf (pdf).  If you’d like to earn a full certification in my proposed new international relations subfield known as “Hormuz Mining Studies,” there are yet (pdf) more analyses readily available. Many of these analyses, however, are careful to note that Iran would suffer serious economic consequences from shutting the strait down, and analysts tend to agree that an Iranian mining campaign would be an operation of last resort.

The Strait of Malacca
The Strait of Malacca is the narrow divide between the mainland portion of Malaysia (with Singapore at the southern end) and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is the shortest maritime passage between the Persian Gulf and the East Asian countries, and about 15 billion barrels of oil per day passed through in 2006, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).

The strait is about 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point, and pirates have exploited this fact throughout history. However, the International Chamber of Commerce notes that the nearby nations have been aggressive in repelling piracy since 2005, and a Time magazine article details some of the intelligence-sharing and operational coordination between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Although Malacca is now safer to traverse, a good portion of the oil transiting the strait could be reduced if a proposed trans-peninsular pipeline ever gets underway.

The Suez Canal
The Suez Canal (completed in 1869) was built to allow commerce between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea without having to sail around Africa. Today it allows faster transport for oil between the Persian Gulf and Europe (and onward to the United States). But the canal has not had an easy history, and has been closed several times, including an eight-year period following the conflict between Egypt and Israel in 1967. The EIA estimates that 3.9 billion barrels per day traveled northbound through the Canal in 2006. Other than a tanker running aground in 2007, no major problems have occurred in recent years, which is good for the world's oil consumers.



Turkish StraitsBosporusDistance.gif

The Bosporus and Dardanelles straits are closely linked, since you cannot get oil from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea without passing through both spots. This is important because Russia transports oil through the Turkish straits, as do Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (pdf) (after piping it overland first). According to the EIA, 2.4 million barrels of oil per day flowed through these straits in 2006, ultimately bound for European markets. The Bosporus is a half-mile wide at its narrowest point and difficult to navigate, which can lead to tanker traffic jams. Inclement weather sometimes shuts down strait traffic entirely. Thankfully, these straits do not have a history of piracy or terrorism like some other chokepoints.

The Strait of Bab el-Mandeb

At the other end of the Red Sea from the Suez Canal, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb is the chokepoint between Yemen and the base of the Horn of Africa (Djibouti and Eritrea). It is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, allowing both north- and southbound tanker traffic within well-defined channels. This chokepoint saw about 3.3 millions barrels of oil traffic per day in 2006.
Security threats to the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb were illustrated with a 2002 terrorist attack on a French oil tanker. The tanker incident was remarkably similar to the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 (both ships were rammed by a smaller boat laden with explosives, and both took place just off the coast of Yemen). This is potentially worrisome in light of U.S. government officials admitting that some al Qaeda members have left Pakistan for new homes in Yemen and Somalia. And Somali pirates have been ranging far and wide and proved themselves capable of seizing oil tankers.

As long as the world's transportation relies primarily on fossil fuels, these chokepoints will remain strategically important. However,  it is unclear just how much events in these locations affect world oil prices. The drive for cleaner and more renewable energy may change things, but for now it's important for energy security analysts—and the U.S. national security community—to keep an eye on these spots. And it sure makes me wonder whether any transit chokepoints form potential future problems for other resources beyond oil.

Photos: Courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration.