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Maritime oil routes

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Giancarlo Valori

The ways of oil shipping

There are three types of oil shipping classification. The first is according to the way the ship operates, including regular and non-scheduled routes. Regular (scheduled) routes are mainly used to transport general merchandise and refer to specific ships. They go to specific ports at fixed dates and operate passenger and freight activities at standard freight rates.

Non-scheduled routes refer to temporarily selected routes based on freight transport needs. Vessels, sailing schedules, and ports of call are not fixed. These are routes that primarily operate bulk, and low-cost freight transport activities.

The second type is based on classifying by distance, including ocean and coastal routes. Ocean routes refer to long-distance maritime routes and ships that cross the great seas from the Far East to Europe and the Americas and vice versa.

The third type is based on classifying according to navigation, including Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean routes and global routes as such.

Oil routes

Here are the main oil shipping routes.

West Asia (Strait of Hormuz) – Arabian Sea – Indian Ocean – Strait of Malacca / Strait of Lombok (60 kilometres long, 40 kilometres wide and 250 metres deep) – East Asian countries (People’s Republic of China, Japan, South Korea, etc.). The largest seaborne flows come from Middle East’s crude oil in the Persian Gulf. This route is the best way for East Asian countries to import crude oil.

  1. West Asia (Strait of Hormuz) – Arabian Sea – Indian Ocean – East Africa – Strait of Mozambique – Cape of Good Hope – Atlantic Ocean – Western Europe / East coasts of the Americas. The water depth along the route has practically no restrictions on the type of ships and both supertankers (Very Large Crude Carriers) and mega-tankers (Ultra Large Crude Carriers) can sail freely.
  2. Persian Gulf – Strait of Hormuz – Arabian Sea – Gulf of Aden – Bāb al-Mandab – Red Sea – Suez Canal – Mediterranean Sea – Strait of Gibraltar – Atlantic Ocean – Northern Europe – North America’s East Coast. Unlike the second route mentioned above, this one has a shorter shipping time, but due to the shallow draft of the Suez Canal, it is difficult for large ships to pass through and the cargo capacity is relatively small.

III. North African Mediterranean Sea – Strait of Gibraltar – Northern European countries (Antwerp, Rotterdam, etc.). Crude oil from Libya and other North African countries is mainly transported along this route.

  1. Atlantic route to Western Europe and North America.
  2. West Africa via the Cape of Good Hope to East Asian countries.
  3. West Africa – Strait of Malacca – Taiwan Strait – mainland China. This route is used to transport crude oil from Angola, Nigeria and other West African countries to China.

VII. Caribbean route: Latin America – Panama Canal – American coast of the North Atlantic.

VIII. Route from the North Sea and South America to China, via the Cape of Good Hope.

  1. The East Coast of the Americas crosses the Atlantic Ocean, rounds the Cape of Good Hope and heads for East Asia’s countries; the West Coast crosses the Pacific Ocean and heads for Asia.
  2. Route from South-East Asia to East Asia. This route is mainly for short-distance transport. The ships used are mainly Panamax tankers (ships whose size enables them to pass through the locks of the Panama Canal).

The geopolitical strongholds of Straits, Canals and Channels

Strategic maritime transport oil fortresses are an important part of global energy and geopolitical security. Let us take a closer look at them.

  1. The Strait of Hormuz lies between Oman and Iran, connecting the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea (30 kilometres wide, with an average depth of 80 metres). It is one of the most important routes in the world. In 2020, it recorded an oil trade volume of 18 million barrels per day, accounting for almost 50% of the total volume of oil trade by sea for that year. According to BP Energy data, Qatar exported 3.7 trillion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas (LNG) through the Strait in 2016, accounting for over 30% of the world’s LNG trade.
  2. Located between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the Strait of Malacca is a major transport route connecting the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Strait is approximately 930 kilometres long, with a minimum width of 38 kilometres and an average depth of 25 metres. The number of oil tankers entering the South China Sea (from Singapore to neighbouring Taiwan) through the Strait of Malacca is three times that of the Suez Canal and five times that of the Panama Canal. It is the maritime lifeline of Asian countries. The Strait of Malacca is the shortest route connecting the Middle East and Asian markets including China, Japan, Korea and the whole Pacific. Oil shipments through the Strait rose to 16 million barrels per day in 2016, up from 14.5 in 2011, with crude oil accounting for 85 to 90 per cent, making it the second busiest outpost in the world.
  3. The Singapore Strait follows the Malacca Strait to the southeast: it is 114 kilometres long and 16 kilometres wide, with an average depth of 22 metres. It forms a natural bottleneck in shipping, thus increasing the possibilities of ship collisions or oil spills. It has also become one of the last active areas for pirates. If the Strait of Malacca were to close, almost half of the world’s ships should get around Indonesia. This would affect global transport capacity, thus increasing transport costs and putting upward pressure on global energy prices. The volume of crude oil transported through the Malacca Strait accounts for approximately 15% of global consumption.
  4. The Suez Canal is located in Egypt and connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a strategic route for oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf to European and North American markets. It is the border between Asia and Africa and the most direct water passage between Asia and Africa and Europe. The total length of the canal is 193.3 kilometres; the width of the parallel canals is 205-225 metres, and the average depth is 22 metres. The maximum tonnage passing through it is 210,000 tons. According to the company Kpler-Leading Commodity Data & Analytics Solutions, 1.74 million barrels per day (bpd) of the 39.2 million bpd of crude oil imported by sea in 2020 passed through the Suez Canal. Due to depth limits, the Suez Canal cannot be crossed by super- and mega-tankers. When the Suez Canal Authority extended the depth of the canal to 66 feet in 2010, Suezmax ships – i.e. the ships whose size allows their passage through the Suez Canal – were created. It celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2019. Most of the oil flows passing through the Suez Canal goes north to European and North American markets, and south to Asian markets. Oil exports from the Persian Gulf countries account for 84% of the flows northwards. Russia’s oil exports account for 17% of the southbound flows, followed by Turkey, Algeria and Libya, which together account for 12% of the southbound flows. Total flows through the Suez Canal have been steadily growing since 2009, with increases in 2015 and 2016 reflecting increased OPEC production and exports. The 200-mile Suez-Mediterranean Transport Pipeline (Sumed) – inaugurated in 1977 and built by the Italian companies Saipem and Snamprogetti (ENI Group) and by Finsider’s Montubi and Cimi – transports crude oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The pipeline’s total capacity is 2.34 million barrels per day. When ships cannot navigate the Suez Canal, the Sumed pipeline is the only alternative route that can transport oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. If the Sumed pipeline were to close, tankers should be diverted to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, adding thousands of miles to shipments from Saudi Arabia to Europe and up to the United States of America.
  5. The Strait called Bāb al-Mandab – meaning in Arabic the “Gate of Lamentation” or the “Gate of Tears” – is a maritime fortress between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East and a strategic link between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Located between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea, the Strait connects the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. The Strait is approximately 26-32 kilometres wide and has a maximum depth of 310 metres, with some volcanic islands scattered between them. The island of Perim divides the Strait into two channels, the smaller of which, on the Asian side – known as Alexander’s Strait – is about 3.2 kilometres wide and 30 metres deep. The larger channel – known as Dakt al-Mayun– is on the African side, with a width of about 28.8 kilometres and a water depth of 323 metres, and it is hard to navigate because of the numerous reefs and rapids. As seen above, most of the oil exports from the Persian Gulf come through the Suez Canal and the Sumed pipeline via the Bāb al-Mandab Strait. In 2018, some 6.2 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined similar products passed through the Bāb al-Mandab Strait to Europe, the United States of America, up from 5.1 million barrels per day in 2014. In July 2018, two Saudi supertankers were attacked by Yemen’s Shia Houthi rebels (Ansar Allah), thus suspending oil shipments in the Red Sea, and raising market concerns about the safety of transport in the Bāb al-Mandab Strait. This communication crossing has become an important route for general maritime traffic also between the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. Some call it the strategic heartland of the world, as it is a busy sea route: the area is also a haunt for Somali pirates.

Closing the Strait would enable oil tankers from the Persian Gulf to reach the Suez Canal or the Sumed pipeline and then divert southwards to the southern tip of Africa. This would greatly increase transport time and costs.

  1. The Turkish Straits, which include the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, separate Asia from Europe. The Bosphorus (from the Greek: “cattle strait” or “Ox-ford”) is a 31 kilometres long, 700 metres wide and 121 metres deep waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The Dardanelles (the ancient Hellespont, known in Turkish as Strait of Çanakkale) is a 61 kilometres long waterway, with a 1.2 minimum width and an average depth of 60 metres. It connects the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea. Both waterways supply Western and Southern Europe with oil from Russia and other Eurasian countries, including Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. An estimated 2.4 million barrels per day of crude oil and oil products sailed through the Turkish Straits in 2016, over 80% of which was crude oil. Oil shipments through the Turkish Straits declined from the 2.9 million barrels per day recorded in 2011. Traffic through the two Straits has been steadily declining over the past decade. Oil shipments are likely to increase in the future as Kazakhstan’s crude production increases, since the country exports more crude oil through the Black Sea. The Turkish Straits are among the world’s most difficult waterways, with some 48,000 ships passing through them each year, making the area one of the world’s busiest maritime strongholds. Traffic congestion is indeed causing problems for oil tankers.
  2. The Panama Canal is a vital route linking the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Canal is 82 kilometres long, 90/150-240/300 metres wide and 12 metres deep at most. The aforementioned Panamax cargo ships can usually carry 65-80,000 tonnes but, due to the Canal’s draft limit, its maximum cargo capacity is limited to about 52,500 tonnes and the rest of the cargo is transhipped.

Over 12,525 ships passed through the Panama Canal in 2021, carrying 287,486,205 tonnes of cargo. Alternative sea routes to the Panama Canal include the Strait of Magellan, Cape Horn and the Drake Strait at the southern tip of South America, but such choices would significantly increase transit time and costs. Although oil and petroleum products accounted for 30.1% of the main goods flowing through the Panama Canal in 2021, it is not an important route for such shipments. Northbound (Pacific to Atlantic) oil and refined products on this route account for a mere 6.9% of all cargo shipments; while 42.7% of refined and unrefined oil was shipped south from the Atlantic to the Pacific last year.

  1. The Denmark Strait is the channel linking the Baltic Sea and the North Sea. It is 480 kilometres long and 290 kilometres wide at its narrowest point. It is an important route for Russian oil exports to Europe. In 2016 some 3.2 million barrels of oil products flowed through the Denmark Strait every day. After opening the port of Primorsk in 2005, Russia shifted most of its oil exports to Baltic ports. Primorsk’s oil exports through the Denmark Strait accounted for almost half of total exports in 2011, but fell to 32% in 2016. Small amounts of oil from Norway and the UK (less than 50,000 barrels per day) also flow eastwards through the Strait to Scandinavian markets.
  2. The Cape of Good Hope lies at the southern tip of South Africa and is a major transit point for global tanker traffic. Crude oil shipments around the Cape of Good Hope account for about 9% of all oil traded by sea. The US Energy Information Administration estimated that the oil flows rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 2016 were about 5.8 million barrels per day, accounting for almost 9% of global seaborne trade. The Cape of Good Hope is another alternative route for ships sailing westwards to bypass the Gulf of Aden, Bāb al-Mandab and the Suez Canal, but with increased cost and transit time.

As can be inferred from the analysis above, blocking one of these fortresses is sufficient to harm a country or a well-defined geopolitical area. In such a case, thalassocracy would have more chances than a tellurocracy that disregards forward-looking alliances in view of probable scenario crises.