Over half of the world’s oil supply moved through set maritime routes in 2013, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), often aboard massive tanker ships. To minimize costs, tankers transport oil along established paths that are as short as possible. Many pass through a small handful of maritime chokepoints.
Altogether, there are eight major oil chokepoints throughout the world, and a closure or disruption to any one of them could cause unpredictable price fluctuations. Fortunately, these locations are generally safe and are kept clear by the international community, whose economies and standards of living depend on these chokepoints remaining clear.
Uncertainty over maritime security can lead to a global shifts in oil prices. If one of these chokepoints were disrupted, ships would need to travel additional thousands of miles to reach an alternate route.
Oil prices surged the last week of March after Saudi Arabia began its military operations against Yemen: 3.8 million barrels of oil a day pass through the Bab el-Mandab chokepoint on Yemen’s southwestern coast.
The following graphic displays the major oil chokepoints around the world:
Here’s a look at each chokepoint individually — and at what could threaten maritime traffick through them.
Strait of Hormuz – 17 million barrels of oil per day
According to the EIA, 17 million barrels of oil, representing 30% of all maritime-traded petroleum, passed through the strait each day in 2013. Oil from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, and Iraq all pass through the strait and head mostly towards Asia, although tankers can also head west towards the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.
The Strait of Hormuz is able to accommodate the largest oil tankers in the world. But Iran has indicated that it could be willing to disrupt the strait. Tehran has previously threatened to mine the waterway, and in February Iran carried out the destruction of a mock US aircraft carrier in the strait.
Strait of Malacca – 15.2 million barrels of oil per day
The Strait of Malacca is the shortest waterway which connects the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. In 2013, the EIA estimated that 15.2 million barrels of oil a day passed through the strait, with the fuel from the Middle East primarily heading towards Indonesia, China, and Japan.
The Strait of Malacca is also one of the most narrow chokepoints in the world. The narrowest point in the strait is only 1.7 miles wide, which creates a natural bottleneck for shipping. The strait has also become one of the newest piracy hotspots in the world.
Cape of Good Hope – 4.9 million barrels of oil per day
The Cape of Good Hope, the crossing at the southernmost tip of Africa, is not technically a chokepoint since it’s open on one side. But the area is a critical trade route. In 2013, the route around the Cape saw 4.9 million barrels of oil a day, approximately 9% of the total maritime oil trade.
The Cape of Good Hope also functions as the secondary route for oil if the primary chokepoints of the Suez Canal or the Bab el-Mandab were closed. But rerouting oil around the cape would increase cost considerably as it would add an additional 2,700 miles of transit from Saudi Arabia to the US, according to the EIA.
Bab el-Mandab – 3.8 million barrels of oil per day
The Bab el-Mandab is one of the most precarious oil chokepoints in the world right now.
Only 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, the Bab el-Mandab connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and ultimately to the Indian Ocean. Instability or closure of the waterway could force tankers to have to travel around the southern tip of Africa.
Crucially, the EIA notes, the vast majority of southbound traffic through the Suez Canal must also pass through the Bab el-Mandab, so the closure of the waterway could have a cascade effect.
In 2013, 3.8 million barrels of oil passed through the waterway each day. Oil prices took a recent jolt after the Yemeni government collapsed, raising the possibility of a security crisis in the Bab el-Mandab. On March 31, Houthi militants took control of a key Yemeni military base along the chokepoint.
Danish Straits – 3.3 million barrels of oil per day
The Danish Straits, formed out of a series of channels passing around Danish Islands, is among the most secure oil chokepoints in the world. The chokepoint connects the Baltic Sea in the east to the North Sea in the west. Approximately 3.3 million barrels of oil a day flowed through the region in 2013.
Despite rising tensions with Russia in Europe, and particularly the Baltics, shipping is unlikely to be affected by regional security issues. The EIA estimates that 42% of all oil shipped through the Danish Straits originated from the Russian port of Primorsk in 2013 to the West. A small amount of Norwegian and British oil also went through the straits to the Baltics. But if Russia ever blockaded the Strait, it would mostly just be blockading its own oil trade as well.
Suez Canal – 3.2 million barrels of oil per day
The Suez Canal passes through Egypt and connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. In 2013, a record 3.2 million barrels of oil a day passed through the canal, mostly to markets in Europe and North America.
According to the EIA, the Suez Canal was expanded in 2010 to allow 60% of all tankers in the world to effectively pass through. The fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 and the resulting unrest did little to deter shipping through the canal. But security remains a primary concern and in September 2013 terrorists planned a failed rocket attack on cargo ships passing through the region.
Bosporus – 2.9 million barrels of oil per day
The Bosporus is a narrow stretch of water that divides both Asia from Europe and splits Istanbul’s European and Asian halves. The chokepoint connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In 2013, approximately 2.9 million barrels of oil a day flowed through the Bosporus, with the petroleum coming from Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.
According to the EIA, Russia has slowly been shifting its exports to the Baltics while Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have further increased shipping through the chokepoint. The Bosporus is only a half mile wide at its narrowest point, and around 48,000 vessels travel through the waterway a year.
Panama Canal – 0.85 million barrels of oil per day
The Panama Canal connects the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean and ultimately to the Atlantic. According to the EIA, the Panama Canal transported 1.4% of all oil and petroleum products globally in 2013. This amounted to approximately 0.85 million barrels of oil a day in 2013.
The utility of the canal has waned in the years since it was built. Today, the narrowest point of the Panama Canal is only 110 feet wide at its narrowest point, forcing larger super-tankers to avoid the canal entirely.
The canal is undergoing an expansion project which should enable larger tankers to pass through the region more easily.
By Jeremy Bender