Choke Points: Our energy access points
What is a choke point?
More than half of the world’s oil is transported by sea, making maritime security one the most crucial factors of energy security. Before getting to U.S. consumers and industry, oil leaves ports and harbors around the world and passes through global choke points – narrow sea lanes that are often highly vulnerable to disruption.
Throughout history, the world’s largest choke points have been the target of attacks, including piracy, robbery, and mining by hostile nations. These vulnerabilities continue today, and in some cases are on the increase, such as Iran’s current threat to mine the Strait of Hormuz.
The Department of Energy, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Department of Defense and other national and international organizations closely monitor these chokepoints due to the potentially catastrophic nature of a choking off of the global oil supply, which could drive up costs and threaten critical energy supply.
Below is a rundown of the world’s largest choke points and the main threats they face.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
It was the president’s judgment that we were overweighted in some areas and regions, such as our military commitments in the Middle East, and at the same time, we were significantly underweighted in some regions, including and specifically the Asia-Pacific region
- National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon said in a Nov. 15 speech at the Center For Strategic and International Studies in Washington
Strait of Hormuz
MANAMA, Bahrain—For more than 40 years, the U.S. Navy has used the Naval Support Activity base, a sprawling coastal compound in Bahrain’s capital city, as a global oil police headquarters, projecting vast amounts of military power to ensure that oil from the Middle East gets to its intended consumers—especially those in the United States and its allies.
Protecting oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage off the coast of Iran and the United Arab Emirates, is one of the critical missions of the Navy here. It is also expensive. By some estimates, the United States has spent as much as $8 trillion on maintaining such a menacing military presence in the region in recent decades, including aircraft carrier groups bristling with jet fighters, to make sure countries like Iran don’t choke off the world’s oil supply.
Roger Stern, a professor at the University of Tulsa National Energy Policy Institute, came up with the $8 trillion calculation in a 2010 study published in the Energy Policy Journal. He concluded that the U.S. has spent that sum on protecting oil resources in Persian Gulf since 1976, when it first began increasing its military presence in the region following the first Arab oil embargo.
Estimates of the actual cost vary. According to a 2009 study by the RAND Corporation, there is no official public U.S. accounting of the costs of protecting U.S. oil interests in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere. However, others like Stern have come up with numbers ranging from $13 billion to $143 billion per year.
According to Stern, U.S. officials spent the money out of fear that oil supplies would run out and concerns about containing Soviet expansionism—and access to oil—in the Middle East.
“The fear grew out of a belief not just in a global peak oil, but a strong CIA conviction, that was shared by the National Security Council, that the Soviets were running out of oil, that their production was going to tank in just a few years and the Soviets [had] no choice but to march to the Persian gulf to get oil, so that was the rationale for the idea that a force was needed,” Stern said in an interview.
But, Stern added, “I am just not one who believes that the supply was ever threatened.”
In 2001, the U.S. reached its peak in terms of importing oil from the Persian Gulf – a little less than 2.8 million barrels a day. By 2011, imports from the region had fallen from 23 percent of the U.S. total in 2001 to 16 percent. And that trend is expected to continue, as the U.S. develops better ways to conserve fuel while relying more and more on new technologies and its own production of alternative sources of energy like shale oil and natural gas.
Today, most of the oil exported from the Middle East goes elsewhere, especially to emerging powers in Asia such as Japan, China, India and South Korea. But none of those countries have any substantial military presence in the Persian Gulf, instead relying on the United States to protect the free flow of oil.
Gary Sick, a retired Navy captain and former National Security Council official under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, is one of many Gulf watchers who argue that as the U.S. becomes more energy self-sufficient, there may be fewer reasons to keep a large force in the Gulf– especially since most of the oil is going elsewhere.
“We are sort of the sheriff that watches over the oil flow to make sure they get [oil] because if Japan is cut off or Europe is cut off, that has huge implications for the world economic well-being and our own security,” Sick said in a recent interview.
“Nobody else is willing to pick up that responsibility,’’ he added, “so at the moment we have almost sole responsibility.”
Steve LeVine, author of The Oil and the Glory and an energy security professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said allies like India, which receives about 13 percent of Gulf oil, and Japan, recipient of about 20 percent of the oil, should help the U.S. either patrol the Strait of Hormuz or pay for the security. “Why should we be paying for Japan’s national security?” he asked.
A more politically sensitive question, according to LeVine and others, is whether China should also play a bigger role in securing the Middle Eastern sea lanes, relieving the U.S. of some of the burden. That could allow a nonallied country with its own agenda to fill a potential power vacuum in the Gulf, but, conversely, it could also help stabilize the region at no cost to the U.S., they say.
NEW REALITIES AND CHALLENGES
As it enters its second term, the Obama administration acknowledges that it has some tough decisions to make about its global military footprint, including whether it will maintain its current military posture in the Gulf. With costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the military is also facing massive budget cuts, and a shift of assets to the Pacific in a show of force against an expansionist China.
“We looked around the world and asked a very basic question: ‘Where is the United States overweighted in terms of its presence and resources and efforts, and where is it underweighted?’’’ National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon said in a Nov. 15 speech at the Center For Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It was clear to us that there was an imbalance in the projection of focus of American power around the world,’’ Donilon said. “It was the president’s judgment that we were overweighted in some areas and regions, such as our military commitments in the Middle East, and at the same time, we were significantly underweighted in some regions, including and specifically the Asia-Pacific region.’’
Some key current and former U.S. national security officials said the Obama administration is firm in its commitment to maintaining a significant presence in the Gulf, especially given a potential showdown with Iran over its alleged illicit a possible nuclear weapons program and other security threats in the region.
Prompted by economic sanctions and intensified political rhetoric from regional powers, Iran has threatened since 2008 to close the strait or to use mines to shut down global shipping.
In response, the U.S. and its allies also deployed more military assets to the Gulf. Early in 2011, the Pentagon converted a 40-year-old amphibious assault ship, the USS Ponce, to support countermining and special operations missions in the Middle East.
And last September, the 5th Fleet hosted the largest naval exercises ever in the Middle East with militaries from more than 27 nations to practice coordinating a response to potential disruptions to the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz – specifically from mines. The exercises were intended to enhance interoperability between the U.S. and its allies and to also send a signal to Iran that attempts to disrupt the sea lanes will be met with force. [See video of exercises above]
“I think it’s important to note that there is a broad international commitment to this, in one facet or another, and a broad understanding of the imperative that the global commons are safe for transit,” Vice Admiral John W. Miller, commander of the 5th Fleet, said.
Indeed, during the exercise, a multiplicity of flags waved above different mine sweeping ships. An English vessel sailed alongside a Japanese one, simulating support efforts in the event one vessel was in danger. U.S. carriers launched and retrieved jets, helicopters and drones. A Japanese vessel deployed a mine hunting submarine and an Iraqi frigate participated in an emergency drill against a potential approaching enemy ship.
Recently, Iran also stepped up its naval presence by showcasing two new submarines and two hovercrafts. On Dec. 28, it launched its own naval maneuvers in the strait and the Sea of Oman. The six-day exercise was designed to showcase Iranian capabilities to defend its maritime borders and respond to any force used against it.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has repeatedly announced that it is capable of establishing security in this vital and strategic region, especially with the cooperation and coordination of regional countries,” Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari told Iranian television.
In part due to Iran’s saber-rattling, the United States continues to expand its presence in the Gulf, even as the Obama administration promises a new emphasis on Asia. A 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service, the independent research arm of Congress, said that the U.S. military began a planned $580 million military construction program in Bahrain in May 2010, which will allow larger ships to dock at the naval facility and for more military planes to be stationed there. About $19 million of the budget is allocated for a Special Operations Forces facility. The project is expected to be completed by 2015.
“There’s a lot of things that go on in Bahrain, the headquarters of the anti-piracy, anti-smuggling, anti-terrorism, maritime operations are headquartered over there,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East affairs specialist with the Congressional Research Service. “The US is always – every year or two – trying to get agreements with the government [of Bahrain] trying to keep expanding that facility and keep improving that facility so that it has more capacity.”
A LONG HISTORY OF INVOLVEMENT
The United States’ presence in the Middle East began in the early 1900s with American companies joining their French and British counterparts in oil exploration. However, close U.S. government involvement only began after Saudi Arabia’s vast oil supply was discovered in 1938. By the late 1940s, Saudi Arabia had become the largest oil exporter, and while the U.S. strengthened its ties with Arabian kingdom, it was not yet a main importer of Saudi oil. This is may explain the low military presence in the region and low interest in oil security in the beginning half of the 1900s.
The U.S. military deployment began in 1948, with the establishment of its first bases in countries like Bahrain. But the U.S. military presence only truly escalated after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Washington was shocked to find its Persian ally and primary protector of oil supply in the Middle East had suddenly become an adversary.
According to a 1981 RAND Corporation report written by Paul K. Davis, former acting deputy assistant to the sectary of defense, the U.S. was largely unprepared for this shift in the Persian Gulf policies and began almost “from scratch” to develop a more preemptive, organized and powerful military deployment capability. That was done, in part, to counter suspected efforts by the Soviet Union to gain control over Iran and the Middle East and hence, the oil fields and choke points.
In 1980, in response to that perceived threat, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would take any action needed to protect its interests in the Persian Gulf. This became known as the ‘The Carter Doctrine,’’ and it continues to drive U.S. policy today.
In the years that followed, the U.S. developed the Rapid Development Joint Task Force with the sole purpose of being a mobile unit responding to any regional contingencies. It was later expanded into what is now Central Command, which oversees a swath of territory that extends far beyond the Persian Gulf.
“The concept of staying home except in crisis, and then responding with the cavalry, had long has an attraction for U.S. policymakers and diplomats,” Davis noted in his 1981 Rand study, advocating for the expansion of the military presence there.
“Militarily, however, the concept has serious drawbacks and vulnerabilities,” he wrote. “As a minimum, we need arrangements with regional countries for use of bases as early in crisis as possible; and it means that the base facilities must be suitable.”
Indeed, as Reagan took office in 1981, efforts to double the U.S.’s force in the region were underway, allocating larger and larger budgets to security in the Persian Gulf.
A Congressional Budget Office report from 1983 warned about the growth and expense of the task force, whose name had been shortened to the Rapid Deployment Force:
“As the RDF is constituted today, it comprises 222,000 troops. The administration plans to increase the size of the RDF, perhaps doubling that number… Moreover, the RDF could affect the U.S. defense budget… particularly the plans for a larger version, could give rise to pressure for eventual increases in the defense budget and could hamper efforts to reduce the budget deficit in the next few years.”
The need for a U.S. presence in the Gulf increased in the so-called Tanker Wars between Iran and Iraq that began in 1984, when Iran began attacking oil tankers travelling out of Iraq into Kuwait. In 1987 the U.S., fearful of the effect of the attacks on the oil market and supply, responded to a call for help from its ally Kuwait, and reflagged the oil tankers with U.S. flags – making any attack on the ships an attack on the U.S. It also escorted many of the ships, and increased patrols in the Gulf.
According to a 1991 U.S. General Accounting Office report, the U.S. spent $359 billion nominal dollars to defend American interests in South West Asia, namely the Persian Gulf. The report noted that much of that money went toward Central Command resources, reflagging of the Kuwaiti oil tankers, and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
A 1992 report by the Congressional Research Service concluded that far less– about $13 billion per year— was spent specifically on protecting oil resources.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. military and diplomatic presence in the Persian Gulf has only increased. First came the Gulf War of 1990, and then again in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003. Today, the U.S. presence in the Middle East has extended beyond ground bases in the Gulf and naval patrols in the Strait of Hormuz, to broader military efforts that include training and maintaining strategic alliances, peacekeeping forces and providing humanitarian aid.
“The U.S. presence in the Middle East now has more to do with advancing global principles of nonaggression, human rights and democracy than it does oil,” according to the CRS’s Katzman.
“Just because we’re not importing as much oil from the Middle East, doesn’t mean we don’t have objectives aside that.”
Sick, the retired National Security Council official and Navy captain, would beg to differ.
“If the Persian Gulf had no oil, we would treat it with the same degree of attention as say – as we do Bolivia,” he said.
In early February, the U.S. Navy has announced it will not deploy the USS Harry S. Truman carrier to the Persian Gulf region due to budgetary constraints, leaving only one carrier to patrol the Gulf – a shift away from the U.S.’s usual two carrier group deployment in the region.
Straits of Malacca
The Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Singapore is the second largest oil choke point in the world; about 15 million barrels of oil pass through these waters on a daily basis. The choke point, which links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean, is critical to the Persian Gulf and Asian countries – especially as demand for oil in these countries continues to rise.
The oil shipped through the Strait of Malacca mostly goes to Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.The greatest threats facing this sea lane are piracy and robbery, according a 2011 Center for Naval Analyses study on the economic implications of disruptions of global chokepoints.
While the choke point has remained relatively calm in recent years, recent increases in oil tanker traffic due to increased Asian demand make the strait more of a potential hot spot for pirates and other hostile groups. According to the latest International Maritime Bureau piracy report, there was only one report of piracy or attempted robbery in the strait in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. Four pirates hijacked two fishing boats that year. This is an improvement from previous decades.
Security in the Malacca strait has improved due to more aggressive patrolling, but anti piracy lookouts are still strongly advised for ships transiting through.
Due to the strategic location of the strait, China has been trying to project its naval power in the region, which is one reason the United States has increased its own naval forces in the area.
Egypt’s Suez Canal, spanning 120 miles, connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the oil transiting through the canal is destined for European and North American consumers. Traffic through the canal has generally declined over the past decade, partly because of the decreased demand for oil from the U.S. and Europe.
The main threat facing the Suez Canal is piracy – specifically by Somali pirates. While Somali piracy has declined in recent years, it continues to be a danger to maritime security in this area.
The canal extremely narrow—only 1,000 feet wide in some points—which means it is no longer able to handle some of the world’s supertankers plying regional waters. In response, the 200-mile long SUMED Pipeline, or Suez-Mediterranean Pipeline, was built to provide an alternative.
This important choke point carries 3.5 million barrels of oil a day and is located south of the Suez and links the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. The strait, whose name means “Gate of Grief” in Arabic, is located between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. Any disruption to this passage would block tankers from reaching Suez Canal and their Western customers as well block oil passage to the Persian Gulf. While Saudi Aramco’s East-West Crude Oil pipeline could take on 2.5 million barrels of Bab el-Mandab’s daily transported oil, the rest would need to travel around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
Like the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandab, also known as the Mandab Strait, is a highly volatile shipping lane and especially vulnerable to Somali pirates.
In 2011, the International Maritime Bureau reported 37 piracy attacks on ships passing the chokepoint and near the Gulf of Aden. This is decline from the 117 attacks in 2009.
All of the attacks were conducted by Somali pirates, who often launch rocket propelled grenades and fire automatic weapons at the ships before boarding them and taking hostages for ransom.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “increased oil exports from the Caspian Sea region make the Turkish Straits one of the busiest and most dangerous choke points in the world supplying Western and Southern Europe.
The Turkish Straits, the Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles connect many of the East Asian markets with the European ones. The Bosporus links the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea, and the Dardanelles passage connects the Sea of Marmara with the Mediterranean, south of Turkey.
The Turkish Straits supply western and southern Europe with oil from the Caspian Sea region. As oil production continues to increase from countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the traffic through the Turkish Straits also will rise.
“Only half a mile wide at its narrowest point, the Turkish Straits are one of the world’s most difficult waterways to navigate…” according to the EIA’s most recent World Oil Transit Chokepoints report. “With 50,000 vessels, including 5,500 oil tankers, passing through the straits annually it is also one of the world’s busiest chokepoints.”
The 2010 Center for Naval Analyses report notes that although piracy is less of a concern in the Turkish straits, its vulnerabilities lie in difficulty of navigation and risk of environmental catastrophe that could block almost 3 billion barrels of oil a day from reaching European and other Western markets. The environmental risks include water pollution from oil spills. For example, in November 2003, a Georgian cargo ship spilled around 500 tons of oil into the canal.
Closure of the Turkish straits is unlikely, but in the event it happened, 100 percent of transited oil could find alternative travel through the CPC Pipeline to the Russian market and the BTC Pipeline reaching European markets.
The Panama Canal, which is 50 miles long and only 110 feet wide at its narrowest point, is a key trade route that connects the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The primary destination for oil being shipped through the canal is the United States. However only 800,000 thousand barrels of oil pass through the canal a day, making it a low risk area for any major disruption.
Despite efforts by the Panama government to expand the capacity of the canal by widening and deepening the canal, almost doubling limit on the maximum size of ships, it is unlikely the expansion will impact oil transportation from the region, according to the 2011 Center for Naval Analayses study.
The IMB has reported no piracy attacks in the straits in recent years. However, in the event of any closure, transit times for vessels would greatly increase. Vessels would have to reroute by traveling an addition 8,000 miles around the Straits of Magellan, Cape Horn and Drake Passage under the tip of South America, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration report.
*Correction: The United States Second Fleet of the US Navy was disestablished in September 2011.