Tankers improvise to avoid Gulf tensions
Tankers are crossing sea-lanes and hugging the coasts to avoid high-risk areas in the Strait of Hormuz
About 20pc of the world's oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, and tanker owners are trying ingenious—or reckless, depending on your point of view—ways of navigating through it.
Intertanko, representing the world's independent tanker operators, has issued rigorous advisory guidelines to cope with possible attacks. Operators are advised to post additional lookouts with night-vision binoculars, backed by searchlights, to watch for attackers after a string of mine and missile strikes in recent months.
The guide, issued in July, advises tankers in the Strait of Hormuz to consider transiting at full speed, advice given this week by Norway to its flag-carriers. And to fend off divers with limpet mines while at anchor, Intertanko recommends aggressive action by tankers at anchor designed to frustrate attackers, including powering up and down the engines and thrusters, continuous movements of the rudder and, to disorientate any attackers, using the echo sounder, normally reserved for giving depth readings, to "counter/combat swimmer/diver threat".
Source: Petroleum Economist
It advises the use of guards, although recommends that, unlike the armed details carried by vessels to counter pirates off Somalia, they should be unarmed. For one thing, armed guards will face arrest unless authorised by Gulf states. For another, in a Gulf shooting war, they would be outgunned.
The UK and the US on 6 August announced the formation of a joint naval escort mission. Details of the mission, yet to be formally named, are still being negotiated, but will see warships already deployed in the Gulf coordinating escort duties through the Strait. Both powers have called on other nations to contribute vessels. However, many EU states want to keep their distance from a task force involving US ships, fearing they will be drawn into any escalation of America's feud with Iran, and the EU is mulling a separate escort mission. "It's difficult to see a coherent strategy on the naval side, there's no agreement on the shape of any international mission," said Torbjorn Soltvedt of UK-based risk analyst Verisk Maplecroft.
Caught in the middle
Tanker operators feel that their vessels are acutely vulnerable, not just from targeted attacks, but from the crossfire if fighting breaks out between US and Iranian forces in the confined space of the Gulf. "They could start a war, my friend, and independent sea-farers will be caught in the middle of this," one industry official says. Talk of Western powers planning the use of convoys to protect shipping has failed to erase anxieties.
Ships are ignoring the two designated sea-lanes through the Strait, as both pass through Iranian waters. Instead, they hug the Saudi and UAE coasts. However, the combination of tankers moving at high speed, zig-zagging out of the shipping lanes, some with transponders off, has increased fears of collisions in one of the world's most crowded waterways.
Ripples from the tension at sea have spread through the oil industry. Insurance costs have rocketed, with one company, US-listed Ardmore Shipping, saying rates have jumped "tenfold" since four tankers were sabotaged with explosives at the UAE port of Fujairah in May.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has sought to lessen the hazard of its loads passing through the Strait by moving oil through its east-west pipeline to ports on the Red Sea. In a sign of spreading tensions, the pipeline has been targeted by drones from Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Last year, those rebels fired an anti-shipping missile at a Saudi tanker, a reminder that the Red Sea, like the Gulf, also comes with a choke point.
None of the spate of attacks has yet seen a spike in oil prices, and Gulf producers are confident that delays and snaffles in tankers arriving at berths on time can be coped with: Saudi Arabia and Egypt both have copious storage tank capacity, enabling oil to be stored for late-arriving tankers.
But the mood among some tanker operators is bleak: with the US showing no sign of wanting talks to end its standoff, tension with Iran is likely to continue for many months.