Oil Pipeline Bypassing Turkish Straits Would Not Significantly Reduce Safety Shipping Risks

January 2012, Vol. 239 No. 1

An oil pipeline bypassing Turkey’s Bosphorus Strait would have little impact on shipping safety on the waterway because crude oil shipments constitute a small and declining percentage of total traffic, according to a new IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates (IHS CERA) report.

Lower costs resulting from reduced traffic congestion and lower tanker rates would also undermine the economic rationale for a bypass pipeline, the report concludes.

The report, New Realities in Oil Transit Through the Turkish Straits was produced as part of the IHS CERA Eurasia Transportation Forum and addresses various concerns that have typically fueled debate over the various options and proposals for bypasses to remove crude oil from the Turkish Straits.

“There is a strong view that shipping crude oil through the Turkish Straits creates unacceptable congestion, safety and environmental hazards,” said Matt Sagers, senior director of the IHS CERA Eurasia Transportation Forum. “But in our analysis we found that this is simply not the case.”

Shipment of crude oil through the Turkish Straits accounts for a relatively small share of the current safety and environmental risk profile, the report says. Overall oil shipments (crude and products combined) represented only 5.4% of total ship passages through the Bosphorus in 2010, and crude oil passages alone comprised a mere 3.2%.

Oil-related tanker passages are expected to decline substantially (by around 34%, from about 9,000 in 2010 to about 5,900) by 2025 due to an ongoing shift toward use of larger crude oil tankers and especially a reduction in the volume of refined products being shipped, stemming from changes in Russian oil export taxation.

The report also found that the total oil volumes passing through the Straits have been declining and are likely to decline or remain flat going forward. The report’s base case projects total oil volume flows in 2025 to be about the same as they were in 2010. Crude oil will make up a larger share of the total as crude volumes shipped through the Straits are expected to rise 10% by 2025. However, the increase in crude volumes will be offset by a sizable reduction in refined product volumes shipped.

The greatest risk of an accident in the Bosphorus Strait probably comes from the large number of other cargo carriers (non-tankers) that comprised 85% of the total passages and 68% of total traffic volumes in 2010, the report says. Unlike oil tankers, passages by these vessels grew in 2010 (9% increase) and are expected to continue to grow.

Not only do these other vessels account for the bulk of the passages (and therefore the overall risk), but non-oil vessels also tend to be older and less well-equipped and managed than the crude oil tankers.

Seventy-seven percent of general cargo vessels passing through the Bosphorus in 2010 were more than 10 years old compared to just 22% of tankers. A high number of non-tanker vessels that passed through the Bosphorus in 2010 were flagged in “black-list” flag registries where vessel safety and management standards are much lower. None of the crude tankers were flagged in such registries.

The report also points out that many of the “non-oil” vessels also carry a significant load of bunker fuel that could be spilled in the event of an accident. It is a misconception that only oil tankers can cause oil spills in the event of an incident.

“In contrast to the general cargo ships passing through the Straits, nearly all of the crude tankers fall into the category of vessel that is the most highly regulated by Turkish officials,” Sagers said. “As a result they are the most scrutinized vessels transiting the Straits in addition to being the most modern and best-managed vessels as a group.”

The report also found that tanker traffic’s share of total ship passages in the Bosphorus is small compared to other major high-traffic waterways. Tanker traffic of all types in the Bosphorus represented only 15% of all ship passages through the strait in 2010, compared to 30% in the Danish Straits, 33% in the Malacca Strait and 50% in the Strait of Hormuz.

Furthermore, the Turkish Straits are the only major waterway among the group that restricts passage of large vessels to only daylight hours.

The report concludes that a bypass pipeline would not address the real safety issues in the Straits, as it would remove just one or two crude oil transits per day while failing to address the much greater risk associated with other vessels that comprise the growing majority of passages.

The projected decline in both oil volumes and the number of oil tanker passages will reduce the costs associated with congestion, thus undermining the key cost advantage of a bypass pipeline.

New Realities in Oil Transit Through the Turkish Straits also includes recommendations for improved safety and improved traffic flow such as:

  • Greater use of pilots, particularly by non-tankers: currently only 30% on average for transiting vessels, but virtually 100% for large tankers.
  • More widespread use of vessel-vetting procedures throughout region to improve quality.
  • Use of established pilot-boarding area.
  • Tether large vessels to escort tugs during passage, and
  • Reduced intervals for large ships inbound.
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