Chokepoints: Suez Canal/SUMED Pipeline

The Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline are strategic routes for Persian Gulf oil shipments to Europe. Closure of the Suez Canal and SUMED Pipeline would add an estimated 6,000 miles of transit around the continent of Africa.

  • Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is located in Egypt and connects the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea, spanning 120 miles. In 2011, petroleum (both crude oil and refined products) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) accounted for 15 and 6 percent of Suez cargoes, measured by cargo tonnage, respectively.

17,799 ships transited in 2011 the Suez Canal from both directions, of which 20 percent where petroleum tankers and 6 percent were LNG tankers. Only 1,000 feet wide at its narrowest point, the Canal is unable to handle Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC) and most fully laden Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) class crude oil tankers. The table above shows weight and capacity for the different tanker types. The Suezmax was the largest ship capable of navigating through the Canal until 2010 when the Suez Canal Authority extended the depth to 66 feet to allow over 60 percent of oil tankers to use the Canal, including ships that are 220,000 of dead weight tons in size.

  • SUMED Pipeline

The 200-mile long SUMED Pipeline (or Suez-Mediterranean Pipeline) provides an alternative to the Suez Canal for those cargos too large to transit through the Canal (laden VLCCs and larger). The crude oil flows through two parallel pipelines that are 42-inches in diameter, with a total pipeline capacity of around 2.4 million bbl/d. Oil flows north through Egypt and is carried from the Ain Sukhna onshore terminal on the Red Sea coasts to its end point at the Sidi Kerir terminal on the Mediterranean. The SUMED is owned by Arab Petroleum Corporation (EGPC), Saudi Aramco, Abu Dhabi’s National Oil Company (ADNOC) and Kuwaiti companies.

The SUMED Pipeline is the only alternative route to transport crude oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean if ships were unable to navigate through the Suez Canal. Closure of the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline would divert oil tankers around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, adding approximately 6,000 miles to transit, increasing both costs and shipping time. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), shipping around Africa would add 15 days of transit to Europe and 8-10 days to the United States.

Fully laden VLCCs transiting toward the Suez Canal also use the SUMED Pipeline for lightering. Lightering occurs when a vessel needs to reduce its weight and draft by offloading cargo in order to enter a restrictive waterway, such as a canal. The Suez Canal is not deep enough to withstand a fully laden VLCC and, therefore, a portion of the crude is offloaded at the SUMED Pipeline at the Ain Sukhna terminal. The now partially laden VLCC then goes through the Suez Canal and picks up the portion of its crude at the other end of the pipeline, which is the Sidi Kerir terminal.

The majority of crude oil transiting the Suez Canal travels northbound, toward markets in the Mediterranean and North America. Northbound canal flows averaged approximately 535,000 bbl/d of crude oil in 2011. The SUMED Pipeline accounted for about 1.7 million bbl/d of crude oil flows from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean over that same period. Combined, these two transit points were responsible for nearly 2.2 million bbl/d of crude oil flows into the Mediterranean. Northbound crude transit has declined by almost half since its level in 2008 when 943,000 bbl/d of crude transited northbound through the Canal and an additional 2.1 million bbl/d of crude travelled through the SUMED to the Mediterranean. Contrarily, crude oil shipments travelling southbound through the Canal toward the Red Sea, primarily destined for Asian markets, increased from 2008 through 2010, but fell slightly in 2011. 

Total oil flows through the Suez Canal increased year-over year to almsot 2.2 million bbl/d in 2011, but still remain below previous level prior to the global economic downturn.

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