The accidental blockade of the Suez Canal by the 400 m-long Ultra Large Container Ship (ULCS) Ever Given highlights how tanker trades are reliant on traditional chokepoints, but other forms of chokepoints also exist
How or why Ever Given became wedged between the banks of the Suez Canal is still being investigated, but one outcome will be some form of restriction or added protection for vessels whose length has the ability to block the Canal. The authorities tasked with controlling other hard chokepoints will be monitoring the report of the Ever Given incident closely.
The main chokepoint in the tanker trade, the Straits of Hormuz, is constantly under varying degrees of threat from countries on its borders, depending on the geopolitics of the day. Incidents include the taking of Stena Impero in 2019 and the South Korean tanker Hankuk Chemi being detained in early 2021.
The other major chokepoint for tankers in the Middle East is the Mandeb Straits, which is now under threat from the ongoing conflict in Yemen between various forces, including Iran-back rebels and Saudi Arabian coalition forces. There have been several tanker-related incidents involving improvised mines floating into vessels at terminals in the region. Yemen is potentially the scene of the biggest tanker-related oil pollution scenario in the 2020s, if the elderly and abandoned FSO Safer was to break up.
“The tanker industry has been suffering from the ‘soft’ chokepoint of the Covid-19 pandemic”
The Straits of Malacca is another tanker chokepoint that has its own set of problems. At two nautical miles at its narrowest point, it is too wide to be blocked by a single vessel, but incidents of piracy abound.
Since January 2020, the tanker industry has been suffering from the ‘soft’ chokepoint of the Covid-19 pandemic and in particular, its impact on seafarers. This will have a long-term impact on the younger generation’s desire to go to sea.
Another ‘soft’ chokepoint on the tanker industry is the rise of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). The environmental focus of the general public is very much “not hydrocarbons”, which puts an industry predicated on carrying hydrocarbons in a difficult position. But there are opportunities, too, as highlighted by Hafnia securing funds with margins dependent on its ability to meet lower emissions. In the longer term, these solutions will need to be more radical, and involve a completely new approach to shipping; Stena Bulk’s InfinityMAX, for example, might be one effective way to relieve the pressure stemming from soft chokepoints.